The Human Division Listen-A-Long: Episode 6: The Back Channel by John Scalzi

22 02 2013

The Back Channel by John Scalzi (The Human Division, Episode 6)

Read by William Dufris

Audible Frontiers

Length: 47 Mins

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 Friday 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
Tor.com

Episode 2: Walk The Plank
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
The Audiobookaneers

Episode 3: We Only Need the Heads
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
Audiobookaneers

Episode 4: A Voice in the Wilderness
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
The Audiobookaneers

Episode 5: Tales From the Clarke
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
The Audiobookaneers

Episode 6: The Back Channel
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com

Special Features:

Interview with The Human Division narrator, William Dufris.

First off, I must get something off my chest. I like and respect John Scalzi as a writer, and find him relatively enjoyable in his social media outlets. That being said, I often decry when an author uses his art as a poorly disguised platform of propaganda for a specific world view. For far too long Scalzi has been spouting his pro-Churro propaganda, and now it his bled into his writing. For Shame, Mr. Scalzi…. now go spend that Churro money on some dignity. Now, that the unpleasantness is over, for this week’s The Human Division we get Aliens and the Conclave. I for one cheered at this. One of the things that really pulled into the Old Man’s War series, as well as some of his other novels, like Agent to the Stars, was Scalzi’s depictions of alien cultures. So, I was excited about a tale from the perspective of The Conclave. In The Back Channel, the leader of The Conclave is attempting to ebb the tide of anti-Human sentiment. When he discovers the existence of a Colonial Defense presence on unauthorized human Wildcat colonies, he sends his agent Hafte Sorvalh to establish a contact with the CDF, to try to prevent the break out of war. I really enjoyed this episode, but mostly because it fit nicely into my bread basket. I always enjoy the backroom dealings and subtle manipulations of political subplots, and felt The Back Channel was cleverly done. It also gave us a nice moment where some not so nice people were given their comeuppance, and that’s always nice. I was slightly disappointed in the lack of detail in some of the alien species, but being that this really wasn’t the point of the episode I can hardly complain. There was just the right amount of humorous touches within the tale to keep me feeling good. My major concern with the tale is it seems to wrap up some subplots within the story a bit too cleanly, and I worry that it removes some level of tensions without adding anything in its place. Of course, being this is a serial novel, that’s always what next week is for. Overall, I think if you are a reader who enjoys political maneuverings in your scifi, you will enjoy this episode, and for everyone else, it’s a nice but forgettable side trip in a rich tale.

When I read the synopsis, I was like OMG SCALZI"S GONNA MAKE DUFRIS TALK ALL CRAZY ALIEN!!! What I didn’t expect was a nice exotic feel, with a soft, sardonic humor in his characterization of Hafte Sorvahl. Dufris adds a textured richness to this episode that was nice. I especially enjoyed the light hearted tone Dufris used when Sorvahl were dealing with the racist wildcatters. It was the perfect delivery, full of humor and just the right counterbalance to the obnoxious scumbags she was dealing with. I think this is one of those episodes that may actually come off better in audio then in print, so to all you enjoyers of the Print Scalzi, +1 to us Audiobook Scalzis.

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The Human Division Listen-A-Long: Episode 4: A Voice in the Wilderness by John Scalzi

8 02 2013

A Voice in the Wilderness by John Scalzi (The Human Division, Episode 4)

Read by William Dufris

Audible Frontiers

Length: 49 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 Friday 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
Tor.com

Episode 2: Walk The Plank
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
The Audiobookaneers

Episode 3: We Only Need the Heads
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
Audiobookaneers

Episode 4: A Voice in the Wilderness
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com

Once the fourth most popular Radio talk show host in America, Al Birnbaum has seen a significant decline in his ratings. Fearing for his job, and lavish lifestyle, Al is approached by a shady figure offering him the chance to regain his fortune, if he will only shape the narrative in the service of his clients. Now, Al has become the champion of The Colonial Defense Force on Earth, but at what cost? With the fourth episode of The Human Division, we break away again from the main arch of the story, and get our first real good look at Earth. I like that Scalzi’s future Earth is a recognizable one. The tech isn’t drastically futuristic, and the social and political extrapolations are logical offshoots of our current society. Setting up his earth in this way allowed him to not worry too much about the world building and get right to the gist of the story. I’m very interested in what the reactions to this story will be. Personally, I really liked it. It’s not anything groundbreaking, and is a side trip in the story, and not necessarily a needed one. Yet, what it does is add depth to the overall tale, showing that the underlining conspiracy is complex, but well planned, and that it’s impact will affect all aspects of Scalzi’s universe. Birnbaum isn’t a likable character, but he is a relatable one, and while he’s being manipulated by forces well beyond him, it’s something he knows going in and accepts it. I liked the whole feel of the story, and felt Scalzi packed a lot into a lean 49 minutes. I doubt it will be my favorite episode of the series, but it’s one with a purpose that is well served.

You would think that a Episode about a radio talk show host would be a real moment for William Dufris to shine, yet, this episode wasn’t much of a challenge for the veteran narrator. I think that Dufris excels in the untraditional story, whether it be a weird alien culture, or unique story structure. This story was pretty straight forward, and the actual "on air" time to Birnbaum was minimal. The highlight of the episode was Birnbaum’s interaction with a conspiracy laden listener, who is run over by the bombastic Radio Talk Show host with an agenda. It was the purest moment of levity in the episode, and a lot of fun to listen to. So, I for one hope that next week’s episode, Tales From the Clarke, has some strange Cactus Aliens, or is told in Iambic Pentameter or something like that to allow Dufris to show us his chops as a narrator,





The Human Division Listen-A-Long: Episode 3: We Only Need The Heads by John Scalzi

1 02 2013

The Human Division Episode 3: We Only Need The Heads by John Scalzi

Read by William Dufris

Audible Frontiers

Length: 1 Hr 6 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Grade: A-

As part of The Human Division Listen-A-Long, hosted by The Audiobookaneers, I will be posting my thought on each episode on the Friday 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
Tor.com

Episode 2: Walk The Plank
My Review
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com
The Audiobookaneers

Episode 3: We Only Need The Heads
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com

In the latest episode of The Human Division, We Only Need the Heads, the unbeknownst-to-them Diplomatic Fire team is sent to take over a delicate Negotiation with an alien race after the original Diplomat had an emergency appendectomy. Meanwhile Harry has been dispatched to oversee a sensitive issue on a Wildcat colony that may have a direct impact on the negotiations. We Only Need the Heads gets us back into the swing of things as we see the how the Colonial Defense Force’s tendency to play fast and loose with the rules can have devastating consequences. It’s a great episode, more so for some key moments, than the overall narrative. The plot is strong, and I think Scalzi was smart to show a diplomatic and military situation that falls apart, instead of just having his team constantly save the day. One of the highlights for me in this tale was a conversation Harry Wilson with a newly rejuvenated soldier from Earth. It was a clever way to give new readers backstory on The Old Man’s War universe without relying on distracting exposition. I also find myself starting to really like Ambassador Abumwe. I originally thought early on that her role may have been the sort of Bureaucratic nemesis to Harry Wilson, but I’m beginning to see her more as a cunning sort of anti-partner to him. She may distrust and often butt heads with our hero, but is just as relentless in achieving their goals. I think Abumwe has an even more interesting role, because as an Ambassador she serves as the voice of the CDF, and I think this episode will only add to her distrust of the way things are going and I’m interested in seeing how this will play out throughout the series. We Only Need the Heads serves well as the next chapter in this tale, fitting well into the narrative and creating some more complications for our odd ball team. As a standalone, it works as well, especially in its portrayal of how diplomacy can go wrong, if the Diplomats are cut off from the information they need.

One of the tough things for me in writing these weekly reviews of the series is finding new and clever ways of saying the William Dufris is doing a good job narrating these tales. We Only Need the Heads doesn’t offer as many challenges for the narrator as the first two episodes did, but that’s OK, because Dufris has no problem keeping things interesting. He does get to voice a new alien species, the Bula, and he gives them a mesmerizingly soft, almost Asian feel that fit the species well. One thing that I am going to follow is how the reactions vary between those following the serial in audio versus print. William Dufris is excellent at creating diverse voices for non-human species. If you ever listen to Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series, you can hear him not only create voices for the different species, but tailor them for individuals characters within the species. I have a feeling this will serve The Human Division well, and may give certain episodes a bit of a boost in the audio versions.





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
Tor.com

Episode 2: Walk the Plank
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com

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.