The Human Division Listen-A-Long: Episode 2: Walk the Plank by John Scalzi

25 01 2013

The Human Division Episode 2: Walk the Plank by John Scalzi

Read by William Dufris

Audible Frontiers

Length: 39 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Grade: B+

As part of The Human Division Listen-A-Long, hosted by The Audiobookaneers, I will be posting my thought on each episode on the Firday after release. If you are involved in the Listen-A-Long, or Read-A-Long, or just posting your thoughts each week, feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments and I will add it to my weekly roundup of post.

Episode 1: The B-Team
My Review
The Audiobookaneers
Stainless Steel Droppings

Episode 2: Walk the Plank
Stainless Steel Droppings

Walk the Plank is told as a recording of an interview of an injured member of a Trading ship after it’s boarded by an unnamed enemy (Space Pirates!) and escaped to the planet surface of a Wildcat Colony. It’s a quick tale, coming in a sparse 39 minuets, and its style leaves little room for developing of characters, or any in depth world building. Yet, Scalzi does manage to do a good job in the time he has to show the tenuous nature of an unsanctioned Colony while creating distinct personalities for his characters. So many novels involving Colonization gloss over the numerous incompatibility issues that Humanity will have to deal with when attempting to settle new worlds, and how one little snafu could doom the entire project. Yet, Scalzi doesn’t take the easy road, creating a world full of hostile fauna and flora, and where one missed shipment could be the difference between success and failure. Set within the Universe Scalzi has created the idea of colonization is even more daunting due to the political instability the Colonial Defense Forces and the hostility of alien cultures. I think it was an interesting and risky move for Scalzi to make this the second episode in the series. If this was a typical novel and the readers moved right on to the next chapter, Walk the Plank serves as good background. Yet, in the episodic style of this story, having the second episode be a complete departure from the first can be a bit disconcerting. On its own, it’s a great story, and I am fascinated with how this will play into the whole of the tale, yet it felt like watching the second episode of a TV show, and none of the characters from the pilot are in it and the setting is totally changed.

I thought this story was well handled by William Dufris. This style doesn’t always play out well in audio. With the constant use of dialogue tags, like in a screenplay, it’s hard to capture the natural rhythms of the writing. Dufris handles this well, and while it felt clunky at times, it wasn’t too distracting to the overall story. Dufris talent for voices helps this along, allowing the listener to blot out the dialogue tags relying more on the narrator to delineate the characters. One thing that excites me about this project is the ability for Scalzi to blend different types of storytelling into the overall narrative and with a talented narrator like Dufris who can capture the cadence of well told story and create solid characters, it should pay off in audio as well as print.

Audiobook Review: The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1 by John Scalzi

17 01 2013

The B-Team (The Human Division, Episode 1) by John Scalzi

Read by William Dufris

Audible Frontiers

Length: 2 Hrs 20 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: The B-Team starts The Human Division with a splash, creating instantly likeable characters set in a complex world with a seemingly endless potential for good stories. Even if you’re not a huge science fiction fan, The Human Division may be an event you don’t want to miss.

Grade: A-

It seems now that every time John Scalzi’s releases a new project onto the world, it has the feel of an Event. Now, with the Human Division, this Event label may be more than justified. When John Scalzi announced his new project, a novel released episodically, with a new entry coming every week for 13 weeks, I was quite excited. First off, this book would take place within the world of Scalzi’s military science fiction series, Old Man’s War. I love that series. In fact, Old Man’s War was one of the first science fiction series that I listened to from start to finish entirely in audio. Yet, I was mostly excited about the episodic format. I am one of those strange people that actually prefer television over movies. I enjoy having a story told out over a series of self contained episodes. I think this format actually, well done well, allows for more complete character development, and building of a mythology. I also think it’s riskier. A self contained 2 hour story should be tight, but when you need to fill up hours of content, keep an overall theme, yet tell many smaller stories, sometimes you get The Wire, and other times you get the final season of Lost. So, I am quite interested to see how this will play out, and I for one, will be downloading each episode every week as soon as it comes out.

In The B-Team, the first episode of The Human Division, a top secret Diplomatic Mission goes horribly wrong, when a CDF Diplomatic Cruiser is attacked and destroyed. With the mission of vital import, a second group of Diplomats are sent to handle the situation. This group, made up of low level diplomats and bottom tier fixers must attempt to salvage the mission while discovering exactly what happened to the first group. In many ways, The B-Team serves as the pilot of the series, where the characters are introduced and their specific skills are shown to the reader, while the underlying mythology of the series is also set in motion. I often find that pilot episodes do more of a disserves to the overall product, full of info dumps, manufactured attempts to make you instantly bond with the characters and heavy handed world building, all while not offering much of a coherent story. Yet, Scalzi manages to accomplish all the key ingredients of a good pilot while also telling a heck of a good story. I was sucked into the story from almost the very beginning. Scalzi uses the mystery of what exactly happened to the missing ship very effectively, allowing the characters and their relationship to develop naturally. It was great to have Harry Wilson, a character from the original series, taking a leading role in The B-Team. Harry is one of those characters that readers can instantly connect with. He has a lot of the iconic Scifi hero about him, witty and sarcastic, and while often underestimated, is competent and an excellent problem solver. Harry isn’t flashy, just a strong, even handed hero. Scalzi fills out the cast with a lot of excellent new characters, including the brash captain of the diplomatic ship, and an ambitious underutilized Diplomatic lead. The B-Team starts The Human Division with a splash, creating instantly likeable characters set in a complex world with a seemingly endless potential for good stories. Even if you’re not a huge science fiction fan, The Human Division may be an event you don’t want to miss.

William Dufris returns to Scalzi’s Old Man War universe with a strong performance. I always loved Dufris reading of Old Man’s War. He was able to take these characters, and meld the youthful vigor of their bodies, with the seasoned thought process of their actual years. Dufris does a wonderful job with The B-Team. He has a great grasp on the characters, and Scalzi’s more contemplative and cerebral action style plays out well with Dufris strong sense of pacing. I will be quite interested in others reactions to his voicing of the alien species that our heroes come into contact with. It actually made me laugh a bit. It was over the top and a bit kitschy. I really liked it, but I think a few more restrained and serious scifi fans may frown at it, while shaking their heads in nerdy disgust. I really look forward to the rest of this series, all of which will be available for a pretty reasonable price for Audible members.

Audiobook Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

8 06 2012

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 7 Hrs 41 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Redshirts is the sort of accessible, fun science fiction that I feel should easily pull in readers who may have loved Star Trek, but don’t really consider themselves science fiction fans. It’s full of recognizable character archetypes, bizarre meta-concepts and just enough nostalgia to lead to hours of rousing discussions. Yet, it’s also a whole lot of actiony fun with robots, ray guns and space worms, and that is a good thing.

Grade: B+

Years ago when I was on vacation I was visiting some friends who were hardcore trekkies. Now, I like Star Trek. I really liked Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. Yet, I liked it with the sane restraint of one not willing to adjust their whole philosophy of life to match up with the values taught by their favorite television program. My trekkie friends were a bit more enthusiastic. While at my friend house, I discovered a book called The Nitpickers Guide to Star Trek: TNG or something along that line. It was an episode by episode analysis of the inconstancies and continuity errors of the entire series. I was never much of a nitpicker. I expect inconsistencies in television. Sure, I always thought the alien parasite at Star Fleet Command episode fit uncomfortably into the overall story of the series, but typically, I was happy in my oblivion. Yet, I became obsessed with this book. I spent hours that weekend reading it, scoffing at something they called mistakes while also occasionally shocked I missed such obvious blunders. At the end though I realized, you know, I just want to be entertained. I don’t want to sit there, examining the show scene by scene, looking for flaws. I want my 48 minutes of fun, knowing by the end Picard would still be telling people to “make it so.” Maybe this is another thing that separates the causal fan from the Trekkie.

In Redshirts John Scalzi tells the story of those unsung heroes of the Star Trek franchise. Those characters that never will see their name in the opening credits. They don their red uniforms and head on away missions and seldom return. Yet, on the Intrepid, these lowly peons of dramatical sacrifice are beginning to figure out the score. They know that heading on an away mission with certain members of the bridge crew will lead to a painful and pointless death and one member of the crew is planning to do something about it. John Scalzi has become the king of the novelty novel, and to me, this is a good thing. Redshirts is an outrageously meta romp through classic science fiction, that will have the ultra serious hard science fiction fans pulling their hair out. Scalzi has found a way to take the standard “a wizard did it” excuse for poorly plotted fantasy and apply it to scifi with absurd results. Its fun, action filled and often times hilarious. Yet, despite all the craziness of the plot, Scalzi manages to pull it together in a bittersweet way. I’ll be honest with you, I had mixed feelings about the three codas. It’s one of those weird moments in literature where you both like and hate what and author does. I enjoyed it, and was frustrated by it at the same time, particularly in the ending of the overall base story. In some ways it was an authorial gut punch by Scalzi, and looking back at it has me asking frustrated by my unanswered questions. Yet, while I was in the midst of the listening experience, I enjoyed every minute. Redshirts is the sort of accessible, fun science fiction that I feel should easily pull in readers who may have loved Star Trek, but don’t really consider themselves science fiction fans. It’s full of recognizable character archetypes, bizarre meta-concepts and just enough nostalgia to lead to hours of rousing discussions. Yet, it’s also a whole lot of actiony fun with robots, ray guns and space worms, and that too is a good thing.

Wil Wheaton is not the greatest technical narrator, and there were a few, a few mind you, moments where Redshirts played into some of his weaknesses. Wheaton takes a minimalist approach to characterization, which usually works quite well in the concept heavy, action based science fiction he reads. He does well with unique characters, but the typically mundane characters tend to be read in slight versions of his natural voice. There were a couple dialogue intensive moments, full of he said/she saids that came off inorganic. This was a combination of a bit of clunkiness in the writing, and Wheaton’s approach. Also, early in the book, the names Dahl and Duvall had a sound a like quality that caused a bit of confusion. Sometimes, I wish writers would take things like that into consideration when naming characters, but not every author writes with the audio version in mind. Yet, all negatives aside, there is a reason why Wil Wheaton is one of my favorite narrators. Wil Wheaton uses his grasp of the material and understanding of the characters, and the writer’s intent, to bring the world created in Redshirts to vivid life. One of my major peeves when evaluating audiobooks is narrators inserting themselves into the narrative, yet, with Wheaton, it just works. I can’t help but imagine Andrew Dahl, without a bit of Wheaton in him. Wheaton chooses his audiobooks wisely, taking on roles that suit him and his skills. He bring a wry wit that highlights the absurdist nature of John Scalzi’s plot, and adds to the overall listening experience better than almost any narrator I can think of. Redshirts is the perfect blend of science fiction fun and nostalgia that will have an across the board appeal similar to Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One. You don’t have to be a huge scifi fan to enjoy Redshirts, but having a touch of the geek inside you won’t hurt.

Audiobook Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

14 05 2011

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Fuzzy Nation is a fast, clean, straight forward science fiction adventure with a well plotted and satisfying ending. Wil Weaton again shines as narrator for one of John Scalzi’s tales.

Grade: A

John Scalzi is a writer. He writes science fiction novels, short stories, compelling blog posts, quirky tweets about his cat and his views on sci-fi film. Not only is John Scalzi a writer, but he is also a science fiction fan. You can see that on his writing. The love of the genre shines through his work, with shout outs to modern writers, and past greats as well. John Scalzi’s latest work, Fuzzy Nation, may be his ultimate love letter to classic science fiction yet, a re-imagining and updating of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. Now, I have never read the source material, something I plan to rectify, so my take on the novel will not be a comparison to its predecessor, but a look at how it stands on its own. I don’t feel this is a negative, you don’t have to have seen the 70’s version of Battlestar Galactica to appreciate the more modern version. Yet, I do think it is important for readers and listeners to understand the origins of the work.

Fuzzy Nation is just simply a wonderful novel. It has so many thing I enjoy in novels that it’s almost like someone decided to put something together just for me. Science fiction, with cute fuzzy beings, an awesome dog, a snaky anti-hero, some courtroom drama, and a whole bunch of twists both in characters and plot. One of the things I loved so much about the book is that while at heart it’s a simple science fiction tale about discovering a sentient species, it doesn’t rely on cliché and overused tropes. Jack Holloway is my favorite types of character, not someone whose essence is inheritably good battling against the evil corporate entity, but a selfish schemer who finds ways to make his moral ambiguity actually do a little good. I especially like the fact that our typical bad guy, the exes’ new boyfriend, is actually more of a true hero type than Jack will ever be. Add to that, Carl, the wonderful dog who can set of explosives (for a treat) and we already have a winning basis for a novel. Then we get to the Fuzzies. Oh, those adorable, yet smart creatures that are the heart of this tale. You just cannot help but like them. Yet, they are not just smart teddy bears, they are intricate and active members in driving the plot forward. Through the Fuzzies we see the true nature of the characters, and humanity as a whole. Fuzzy Nation is a fast, clean, straight forward science fiction adventure with a well plotted satisfying ending.

Scalzi and Wil Wheaton are quickly becoming one of the better author/narrator pairings in the business today, on the same lever as Butcher/Marsters. Like James Marsters, Wheaton has a simple reading style not cluttered down with bells and whistles. He was brilliant in Agent to the Stars, which was #5 in my top 20 audiobooks of 2010, and continues to impress here. Wheaton finds the right tone for each character, not overacting, just allowing their voice to shine through. Where Wheaton really shines is the courtroom scenes where he finds the right rhythm for the process of the hearing, and provides a truly great moment, that I don’t want to spoil for the listener. Fuzzy Nation is a great adult Science Fiction Tale, yet it also has enough heart and humor to appeal to even non-science fiction fans.

Audiobook Mini-Review: The God Engine by John Scalzi

23 04 2011

The God Engine by John Scalzi

Read by Christoper Lane

Brilliance Audio

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Thoroughly demented.

Grade: B

I think John Scalzi must have issues. Really, to go from a humorous sci-fi comedy about squishy aliens, to a military sci-fi series about enhanced soldiers, to The God Engine, well, I am not even sure how he made that trip. To me, the God Engines reads like my nightmares after spending a day reading Lovecraft, eating skittles, watching a Star Trek marathon, and drinking that skunk Lager that had rolled behind my beer fridge. I mean, it’s freaky. Well imagined, brilliantly told, scary as hell, and oh, so freaky. This works well as a three hour audio-novella, read evilly by Christopher Lane. A longer, fully fleshed out version of this novella would probably lead me to ingest a cocktail of xanax and robitussin, just to keep me from wanting to burn down churches to prevent such a future. Scalzi does a great job creating a universal where Faith is a weapon and the gods are not our friends. I cannot say this was the most entertaining audio experience of my life, and Scalzi fans won’t find any of his patented light hearted moments, but it’s definitely thought provoking. If his goal was to freak me out, well, good job Scalzi, consider me freaked.