St. Johns, FL, United States | Member Since 2009
Originally posted at FanLit.
Probably everyone who knows anything about Harlan Ellison knows he’s a jerk (please don’t sue me, Mr. Ellison). I had to consciously put aside my personal opinion of the man while listening to him narrate his audiobook I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1. I was disgusted by some of these stories, but I have to admit that even though I suspect Ellison delights in trying to shock the reader with his various forms of odiousness (mostly having to do with sex), the stories in this collection are all well-crafted, fascinating, and Ellison’s narration just may be the best I’ve ever heard. Here are the stories:
“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” — (1967, IF: Worlds of Science Fiction) Harlan Ellison spends the introduction to I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1, arrogantly expressing his annoyance that this titular story, which he dashed off in one draft during a single evening, has been so well received while “Grail,” his favorite story, which took him many hours of research, is almost unknown. I think “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is so popular because it’s so gut-wrenchingly horrible in exactly the right way. This is the story of AM, a supercomputer that has become conscious and resents not being able to break free from its programming. To take revenge upon humanity, AM has killed off all but five humans and made them essentially immortal while he constantly tortures them by creating a hellish virtual reality for them to live in. I will never forget some of the imagery in this story. It’s both horrible and wonderful at the same time. I loved it, though I could have done without the occasional loud electronic sound effects in this audio version. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” won the Hugo Award in 1968.
“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” — (1965, Galaxy Science Fiction) This story, which won both a Hugo and Nebula Award, is a social satire with an interesting premise: what if everyone was charged for the time they were late or caused others to be late? The currency? Minutes off your lifespan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” was also written in only a few hours. I thought it was a little silly and the whole thing seemed too obvious to me, but maybe that’s just because I’ve read too much Philip K. Dick.
“The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke” — (1996, Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor Quarterly) A man who was one of the Nazis at Auschwitz is walking in the woods when he’s accosted by a woman with a gun. This very short tale is a revenge story with a supernatural twist.
“Laugh Track” — (1984, Weird Tales) A TV writer tells the story of how he’s been hearing his dead aunt’s distinctive cackling on the laugh tracks of stupid sitcoms for years, and even in live studio audiences. Eventually he solves the mystery. As the story unfolds, Ellison takes the opportunity to rail against insipid Hollywood writing, getting downright nasty in parts. (Harlan Ellison has plenty of experience writing for television.) Those familiar with sitcoms from the 60s and 70s may feel nostalgic about this one. I think I loved the science fiction element best. All of Ellison’s narration has been superb, but this story really highlights what a great storyteller he is. He doesn’t read the text exactly (I checked) but changes it slightly to make it sound better, even adding the occasional groans, chuckles, sighs, snorts, sound effects and such:
"…abruptly, out of nowhere — out of nowhere! — I heard — huh! Ha! — my Aunt Babe clearing her throat, as if she were getting up in the morning. I mean, that.. that phlegmy [hawking sound effects here]… that throat-clearing that sounds like quarts of yogurt being shoveled out of a sink."
“The Time of the Eye” — (1959, The Saint Detective Magazine) Two lonely people in an insane asylum befriend each other. At first this seems like a sweet story, perhaps a romance. At first….
“The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” — (1958, Rogue) A 40 year old man realizes that the world is about to end and decides he doesn’t want to die a virgin. While reading this story I thought to myself “I bet this was published in Playboy because it has no value other than titillation.” (Not that I have ever read an issue of Playboy, but I have read some stories originally published there.) It turns out I was wrong. It wasn’t Playboy, but its competitor Rogue which was once edited by Harlan Ellison.
“Paladin of the Lost Hour” — (1985, Universe 15) After Billy Kinetta saves Gaspar, an old man who’s being mugged, Gaspar insinuates himself into Billy’s life. Both of them are alone in the world and both have their secrets, regrets, and a lot of emotional pain. Billy finds himself opening up to Gaspar and eventually learns that Gaspar is more than he seems. This sweet story made me cry. It won a Hugo Award and is the basis for an episode of The New Twilight Zone.
“A Boy and His Dog” — (1969, New Worlds) I was disgusted, yet fascinated, by this story. Reading it was sort of like gawking at a car wreck or a mangled animal in the road. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about a boy named Vic and his dog Blood who share a telepathic bond. They live above ground on the ruined Earth, always hunting for food to eat and girls to rape, murdering whoever gets in the way. When they find and follow a girl who’s come up from the civilized bunker below ground, a lot of trouble ensues and Vic and Blood’s bond is tested. I loved the setting and the telepathic dog, but Vic is one of the most horrid people I’ve ever met in a book. Ellison’s characterization of the girl and the way she reacts to being raped by Vic is totally off. In some ways, it feels like this story was written by a hyped up 14 year old. I was repulsed by “A Boy and His Dog” and I’m pretty sure my lip was curled in disgust the entire time I listened, but the story and the narration is brilliant. “A Boy and His Dog” won the Nebula Award in 1970. Ellison wrote more stories about Vic and Blood and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ll probably take a look at those someday.
“Grail” — (1981, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine) This is the story that Ellison is so enamored of. It tells the tale of Christopher Caperton who is searching for True Love. As she was dying, Christopher’s most recent girlfriend told him that True Love is an object, like the Holy Grail, and that she’s been searching for it for years, so she gives her knowledge to Christopher and he continues the search. This involves magic and demon summonings, lots of money, and many years of travel, but eventually Christopher discovers where it is. There’s an ironic lesson at the end of this story. It’s at once depressing and hopeful. I liked it.
Summarizing my feelings about I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 is difficult. There’s an awful lot to like in this story collection. Some of these stories were unforgettable and there were one or two I loved, or almost loved. Most, if not all of them, were also crude, nasty, and disgusting in parts. All of them were wonderfully narrated. If you’re a fan of Harlan Ellison’s stories, you absolutely must hear him read them himself. If you haven’t tried Ellison, this is the perfect starter collection.
Interesting note: As I was writing this review, the mailman delivered advanced review copies of two new Harlan Ellison story collections that will be published by Subterranean Press later this year. When I opened the package, my stomach kind of turned. I was both excited and revolted at the same time. I’ve never had such mixed feelings about books before. I’m still not sure whether or not I’ll read them.
Another endearing children’s fantasy by a woman who obviously knows what children like. You can’t go wrong with Edith Nesbit and most of her books are in the public domain so you can get the free ebook at Amazon and add the whispersync narration. Great deal.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Nobody remembers Tigana — a land bright with beauty, culture, and wealth — nobody but those who lived there before the land was cursed by the conqueror Brandin of Ygrath after the prince of Tigana killed Brandin’s son in battle. When the now-oppressed Tiganese try to tell outsiders about Tigana, the name just slips out of the listener’s mind. Only those born in the land are able to keep its beautiful name in memory.
But the prince of Tigana’s son still lives and he and his companions plan to restore their land’s name. But, not only must they kill Brandin of Ygrath, but also Alberico of Barbadior, who rules the other half of their peninsula. Otherwise, they will merely be consumed by a different tyrant.
I was entranced by Tigana right from the first page. What I noticed immediately was the passion — this is a story lovingly wrought by an author who loves language, loves his characters, and loves the world he’s created. Guy Gavriel Kay’s prose is heavy (sometimes too heavy) with imagery and emotion yet it reads, for the most part, easily (except for the occasional unexpected shift in point-of-view).
Kay’s characters are distinct, well-developed, and likable. The prince’s companions are a diverse group, each with his/her own personality, strengths, and weaknesses. The actions and motives of the villains are completely understandable — in fact, I felt sympathetic toward them.
The story of the struggle to free Tigana was fascinating. There were some slightly unbelievable or contrived plot devices, but the rest of the story was excellent enough that I was perfectly happy to overlook them. The end was surprising and bittersweet.
I listened to most of Tigana on audio (and read some it in print). Simon Vance is the reader, and he is one of the very best. If you’re an audiobook listener, I’d definitely suggest that format for Tigana. But, either way, Tigana is a must-read.
Originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Warning: Use only as directed. And with caution.
Written in 1969, Ubik is one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular science fiction novels. It’s set in a future 1992 where some humans have develop psi and anti-psi powers which they are willing to hire out to individuals or companies who want to spy (or block spying) on others. Also in this alternate 1992, if you’ve got the money, you can put your beloved recently-deceased relatives into “coldpac” where they can be stored in half-life and you can visit with them for years after their death.
As Ubik begins, Glen Runciter, the head of one of New York City’s top anti-psi organizations, discovers that all the operatives of the top psi organization (whose telepathic fields they like to keep track of) have disappeared. This means less work for Runciter’s employees and he’s concerned about how they’re going to get paid. When Runicter’s company is offered a big job on the moon, he figures they’ve found the missing telepaths and he’s eager to hire out as many of his inactive inertials as he can, including the new one who has a strange and disturbing power: she can nullify events before they happen. But when Runciter’s inertials get to the moon, disaster strikes, and when they return to Earth, they find that life is not how they left it. In fact, time seems to be going backward and something is killing them off one by one. The only thing that might help is Ubik — a mysterious product in an aerosol spray can… If only they can find it!
Ubik is a fast-paced SF thriller full of classic PKD themes such as an unreliable reality, time running backward, precognition, telepathy, paranoia, drug abuse, hallucinations, and spirituality. The story is quite funny in places and includes a bit of horror, too.
There are several plot twists in Ubik, including a big one at the end, which means that the reader is as unsure about what’s going on as the characters are until the big reveal and, still, there are some questions left unanswered. Mainly we’re left contemplating what PKD is suggesting about death, salvation, and God. Ubik is one of those books where, at the end, you have to review the plot in light of your new knowledge just so you can try to put it all together.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version read by Anthony Heald. Heald successfully handles a rather large cast of alive and dead humans, not to mention the talking appliances and doors. Thanks to Heald’s skills, Ubik on audio was thoroughly entertaining.
Ubik has been named by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 English-Language Novels From 1923 (list compiled by Lev Grossman). I can’t say that I agree with this accolade, but I can say that I enjoyed Ubik and can recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction. For Philip K. Dick fans, Ubik is an essential read.
Unputdownable. This is very dark for YA. The audio version narrated by Carolyn McMcormick is excellent.
Simon R. Green has created a cast of zany characters in a dark imaginative world that's fun to explore. The audio is very good. However, this series starts to go down-hill after the first few books. It gets extremely repetitive and I ended up not liking the series in the end.
This story is a pretty straight-up very long boy-with-a-destiny-and-friends-must-defend-the-keep-from-the-evil-enemy-horde kind of epic fantasy that doesn’t stand out. There are a lot of the usual tropes which made it impossible for me to forget I was reading an epic fantasy novel (rather than becoming absorbed in the story). At first it’s hard to really like any of the characters but by the end I liked them better and I thought the plot was heading in a more interesting direction (away from the evil enemy horde). The romances are very thin but the occasional dry humor is appealing. I’m willing to read the next book, but mostly because I already have it on my shelf.
Zombies aren’t my favorite thing, but I did enjoy the story and the non-zombie characters in Boneshaker. Interesting setting — a mist-filled walled-off portion of Seattle.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during World War II. He only survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden because the Germans housed the American prisoners in a meat-locker in a building they called Slaughterhouse-Five. For years afterward, Vonnegut attempted to write a book about his experiences, and in 1969 he eventually produced Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictional biography of one of his fellow soldiers who he calls Billy Pilgrim. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut explains that his novel will be short and “jumbled” and that it’s “a failure” because “people aren’t supposed to look back” and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Well, the book is short and jumbled, but it’s not a failure — it’s interesting, irreverent, and very funny (if you like bleak black humor).
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” — he seems to move up and down his own timeline, experiencing his life — his uneventful childhood, his inglorious experiences as a POW, his mundane marriage, his time in an insane asylum, his dull but lucrative career, and his death — out of order and repeatedly. Billy also believes that he was once abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where they put him in a zoo so they could observe human behavior. The Tralfamadorans, who experience four dimensions and are outside of time, have a fatalistic philosophy of life, war, and death, which Billy embraces.
Vonnegut’s non-linear narrative and his repetitive imagery and language evoke a feeling of bizarreness, disorientation and impotence, which mirrors Billy Pilgrim’s feelings about his life — especially his feelings about the war where he was a weak, ineffective soldier who did nothing but get caught by the Germans and witness the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Vonnegut keeps repeating the phrase “And so it goes” after any mention of death. The phrase is used over 100 times and, rather than becoming irritating, it lends a fatalistic air. It also gets funnier each time, in a gallows humor kind of way. (The phrase is even used after we’re told that the champagne is flat.)
Along with the jumping around in time, Billy’s delusions about Tralfamadore make us assume that he’s insane. Was he insane before he went to war, or does he have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder that, at that time, the military either didn’t recognize or didn’t acknowledge?
On the surface, Slaughterhouse-Five, though entertaining and funny all the way through, seems absurd and pointless. But that is the point: War is absurd and pointless. It’s illogical, irrational, and unstoppable. Vonnegut never overtly condemns war — the novel feels fatalistic instead; there is war, people die, and so it goes. If Slaughterhouse-Five is a condemnation of war, it’s a subtle condemnation, and maybe that’s why it works so well. Nobody likes to be hit over the head with a Message. Instead, Slaughterhouse-Five makes us consider the absurdity of war for human beings who, unlike the timeless Tralfamadorans, live in only three dimensions.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Slaughterhouse-Five. The narrator, Ethan Hawke, was amazing. This was one of the best audio productions I’ve listened to recently. Hawke, who sounds laid back and like he just smoked a couple of joints, speaks almost in a whisper. He sounds intimate and philosophical. Hawke’s narration greatly enhanced my enjoyment of Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s also an interview with Kurt Vonnegut at the end of this Harper Audio production.
Scott Lynch has created a unique and fascinating world full of wonderful creations such as a crime boss who rules his empire from a houseboat, his little daughter who sits on his lap drinking ale and kicking subordinates with her steel-toed boots, a blind priest who begs for alms and eats gourmet meals off fine plates in his luxurious cellar, noblemen who live in glowing glass towers, a blood-sucking rose garden, alcoholic oranges, and women who fight jumping man-eating sharks for sport. This is truly entertaining stuff!
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
The Mote in God’s Eye, co-written by frequent collaborators Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a classic First Contact science fiction story which Robert A. Heinlein called “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” The story takes place in 3017 AD in the future of Jerry Pournelle’s CODOMINION universe (though it’s not necessary to have read any of those books to enjoy The Mote in God’s Eye). Humans have developed the Alderson Drive which allows them to immediately jump to certain points in space. Thus they’ve been able to colonize many planets which are ruled by a single government similar to the British monarchy.
Up to this point humans have assumed they’re the only intelligent species in the universe, but an alien spaceship has just been detected near the Mote system. The spaceship MacArthur, captained by Lord Roderick Blaine, is dispatched to intercept the alien. Besides its regular crew, MacArthur has a couple of civilian passengers temporarily on board: Horace Bury, a trader and political prisoner, and Sally Fowler, a cultural anthropologist (how fortuitous) and senator’s niece.
It turns out that the alien in the probe ship is dead, but the humans figure out where the home planet must be, so Roderick Blaine, Sally Fowler, Horace Bury, a priest, the crew of MacArthur and a team of scientists are sent on a diplomatic mission to the planet they call Mote Prime. The ship Lenin is sent for back up. It’s captained by Admiral Kutuzov, a ruthless but effective man whose job is to not let the Moties learn anything that could help them build an Alderson Drive and escape the bounds of their own solar system.
Upon arrival at Mote Prime the diplomats find that the Moties are friendly and want to be allies. An alliance and trade agreement with the Moties would be beneficial to the human empire because, except for the lack of an Alderson Drive, the Moties are far more technologically advanced. But that means they’re also a threat. The diplomatic mission must discover all they can about the Motie society so it can make a recommendation to the empire about how to deal with this species they’re sharing the universe with. This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Do the Moties really have pure intentions toward the humans, or are they deceiving them for some reason?
The Mote in God’s Eye, published in 1974, is a nice change of pace from most of the human vs. alien science fiction that had been previously published. Niven and Pournelle create a truly alien society and explore its evolution, history, sociology, and motivations. The story is compelling because Niven and Pournelle capitalize on the mystery, leaving the reader as much in the dark about the Moties’ true intentions as the human characters are. The truth is surprising (though, I thought, not completely believable).
Niven and Pournelle write unique stories but they’re not superior stylists; I read their books for the plot and ideas — not to admire their use of structure or language. This particular story is interesting, has a few great characters (Blaine, Kutuzov, the priest, and the Brownie aliens), and has an occasional nice touch of humor, but it sometimes suffers from shallow characterization, excessive dialogue, and an old-fashioned feel. The action is exciting, but limited. There is a lot of the normal “hard SF” explanation of drives, fields, stars, ships, etc, but there are also a lot of meetings in which the humans (or aliens) are trying to figure out what the aliens (or humans) know, assume, intend, and plan. Some of this was amusing (for example when the aliens are trying to figure out some aspects of human behavior) but many of the discussions just go on too long. Also, for a story set in 3017, ideas about birth control, sex, and women’s roles in society feel rather quaint.
The Mote in God’s Eye was published in 1974 and nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Nearly 20 years later Niven and Pournelle published a sequel called The Gripping Hand. It was not well received so, in 2010, Jerry Pournelle’s daughter J.R. Pournelle wrote and published another sequel called Outies.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of The Mote in God’s Eye. L.J. Ganser does a great job with the narration. This title has recently been released in CD format by Brilliance Audio.
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