BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An 8-CD set of 10 audio stories of stories originally printed in 2008.
PROS: An excellent selection of stories; high production values; excellent narration overall; audio format made it easy to consume.
CONS: Though few and far between, some stories worked better than others.
BOTTOM LINE: This was an enjoyable listening experience.
Publishing a “perfect” anthology is hard, if not impossible. With multiple stories, it’s hard to compile ones that are all well-received by any one reader (let alone a short-fiction-consuming audience). A while back, I had posted my “Wish List” anthology, a collection of first-rate stories that I would pick for inclusion in a perfect anthology. It almost seems as if editor Allan Kaster has tapped into my own thoughts of 2008’s short fiction selection, because the audio book anthology The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction (for 2008) come really close to being perfect.
But it’s not just story selection that contributes to that. It’s also the delivery and consumption of the stories. For example, I had already read 7 of the 10 stories in this anthology – and they were all good enough that I gave the audio version a try. Reinforcing my belief that outside influences affect a story’s quality (most notably, a reader’s attention), I must confess that the second time around, I found one story (“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”) to be more enjoyable. Perhaps I read it too quickly the first time around? I can’t speed-read an audio story!
The narration of the stories is top notch, but I did notice a few things that, being a casual consumer of audio stories, make me wonder whether they are prevalent in all audio books. First, the chapter breaks (when a story had chapters) sometimes did not match up with the CD track breaks and furthermore, lacked sufficient pause in the narration. Second, the delivery was not always consistent. You could hear when a new take was tacked on to the previous one. These are not detractors, mind you, just some notes on the audio format itself. The narrators (Tom Dheere, Vanessa Hart, and Sue Bilich) do a wonderful job. Additionally, the 8-CD set comes with a nice cover by Maurizio Manzieri.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable experience. It helped that, being audio stories, I was able to listen on the drive to/from work. But that didn’t stop me from listening at home, too, when a story had me chomping at the bit to see what happened next.
Standout stories in this anthology include “Fixing Hanover” by Jeff VanderMeer, “Turing’s Apples” by Stephen Baxter, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson, “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang, and “Five Thrillers” by Robert Reed.
Individual story reviews follow.
“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner (originally reviewed as part of the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project) is a simple story, simply told, about Jack, who finds a Ray Gun that has fallen from space. Jack treats the ray-gun with respect, training himself to be a hero, and along the way gets a girlfriend or two. Soon Jack suspects that the ray-gun might be controlling some aspects of his life. Gardner’s straightforward prose makes this read like a children’s fable. I must have been paying better attention during the audio version of this story than when I read it; the impression left this time was better.
Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover” (originally reviewed in Extraordinary Engines edited by Nick Gevers) is about a man hiding from his past in the community of Sandhaven. He finds the remains of a mechanical man washed up on the beach that may be a link to his mysterious past, and is ordered to fix it by Blake, the community’s leader. Blake harbors ill-will towards our esteemed handyman narrator, since his mate, a sea captain named Lady Salt, was once with Blake. The beauty of this story is not only the dramatic tension caused by this triangle, but also by the way details emerge about the world; about the dangerous Hill People and the Empire from which they all hide. This is one of those stories that reveals different layers of enjoyment and leaves you wanting more. Well done.
In Jeffrey Ford’s “The Dream of Reason” (also reviewed in Extraordinary Engines), a truly mad scientist named Amanitas Perul believes that stars are made of diamonds and that matter is light slowed to a standstill. He embarks on a years-long experiment to prove that he can slow down starlight enough that it becomes diamond dust. Although Perul’s final discovery leaves a little to be desired, his inevitable and obsessive descent into madness is fascinating to watch.
In “The City of the Dead,” Paul McCauley takes us to dusty settlement on a faraway colony world (the setting of the author’s Confluence stories, I think) where the past history of the town constable (Mariliyn) clashes with the work of an elderly scientist (Anna) who is studying the resident hive rat population. Space travel and advanced technology have been granted to humans by super-intelligent landlords who, beyond a few scattered worlds like this one, reserve the rest of the galaxy for themselves. These are cool ideas that surface after a slow buildup, but they take a back seat to the immediacy of the plot; that is, how Annie’s shady past brings in a palpable tension related to Anna’s study of the hive rats.
“The Art of Alchemy” by Ted Kosmatka is an excellent examination of when corporate profiteering is chosen over morality. The creation of a super-strong carbon nanotube material is something that can significantly benefit mankind, but instead of it being made public, the design is taken to a corporation who will pay handsomely to keep it a secret. Veronica, a corporate bureaucrat, and one of the company’s scientists don’t think the technology should be suppressed. That’s when the corporate bigwigs send out the hired help to eliminate them. Tense action and cool concepts make this an excellent thriller
Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” (originally reviewed in Eclipse Two) is a perfect blend of interpersonal relationships and Big Ideas. The narrator, Jack, and his estranged brother, Wilson, eventually come together to decode an alien signal picked up by a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. Wilson is obsessed with decoding its secrets while he avoids any personal contact with his family – especially Jack who shares Wilson’s love for mathematics and science, but shuns academia to the point of working in the supercomputing department of a government anti-terrorist agency. Baxter’s Big Idea comes in when Wilson actually does uncover the secret in the alien message – something that drives him to solicit Jack’s help – thereby setting of a world-changing sequence of events. This is an excellent, well-written story that’s only slightly muddled by Jack’s speculation over what really happened.
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (originally reviewed as part of the 2008 Nebula Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project) is a seemingly superficial story about a traveling fairgrounds monkey act run by a woman named Aimee. The monkeys can perform amazing feats, including vanishing into thin air, only to return some time later carrying trinkets from wherever they’ve been. As the story unfolds, though, it reveals layers of surprising depth about life and Aimee’s in particular. It’s about loneliness and how she came to fill her life with meaningless things (like her boyfriend). And it’s about healing and moving on. Serious topics for a monkey act, eh?
Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” (originally reviewed as part of the 2009 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project) is a clever historical take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, placing the immortal shoggoth creatures under the attention of a black scientist in 1938. A few boat trips out to where they are located (with the help of a white fisherman) helps the scientist learn more than he bargained for, and enough to put him in a position of import regarding the shoggoths themselves. What could have merely been a simple horror story is instead turned into something more substantial when the author places the shoggoths’ genesis in pitch-perfect context with the personal experiences of the scientist, particularly regarding racism, and with the treatment of Jews in pre-WWII Germany.
Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” (originally reviewed in Eclipse Two) is perhaps best described as a mechanical man’s notes on the scientific method used to discern the true nature of life: that it is predicating on changing air pressure. The setting is a self-contained world totally unlike our own, in which the mechanical men draw air from an underground well, replacing their lung tanks daily. Reading this, I am reminded of the wonder I felt when I first read “Surface Tension” by James Blish. Chiang’s story is equally enjoyable and just as wondrous. Well done.
Robert Reed’s excellent story “Five Thrillers” is exactly what it says it is: five dramatic stories. They happen to be related, portraying a few decades in the life of Joe Carroway, a merciless (and psychopathic) agent who deals in one way or another with the genetically engineered Rebirths, an oppressed faction of humans who eventually seek freedom by threatening to wipe out the “normal” humans. Joe is completely detached from humanity, as evidenced by the chilling reasoning shown in the first Cold Equations scenario. This makes him the perfect “hero” to fight the Rebirths, but the mindset that is rewarded may be no better for humanity in the long run. Great stuff.