Literature on an Alternate Plane: Audio Speculative Fiction

A Flirtation with Audio Novels and an Ancient Evil -- Sean Cassity


I’m a reader. I’ve read Dracula a few times. First from the library, then I bought myself a paperback, and more recently, an annotated version. It’s a book that, when I get a taste of it, I want to swallow it whole. But when I purchased this audio production of Dracula on Audible, it took me months to finally start listening to it. Like I said, I’m a reader.

As much as I enjoy podcasts, non-fiction audiobooks, and even short stories read aloud to me, for my best friends, the novels, I just want that eyeball-to-page contact with no intermediary, just the two of us together (with the door shut, if that’s okay). A novel is a well that I happily tumble down, but I fall at my own pace, sometimes pausing in midair to ponder or imagine. An audiobook is a dictated, 1 G journey. To pause and think means literally fumbling for my phone and finding the pause button–more like clutching onto an out-hanging branch mid-plummet than hovering in flight.

My greater concern is the interpreting taking place in the translation as text is transmuted into an actor’s voice. I always read in my own internal voice, in my intonation. I hesitate to surrender my reading voice to a hired gun. But I do consume a great deal of audio information. It threatens to crowd music out of my life if my other cravings weren’t equal bullies. So I decided to give audio novels a shot. Maybe I’d like it.

This production of Dracula seemed like the best gateway drug if there was a possibility of my getting happily hooked. Dracula is a riff on the epistolary novel. It is told through the writings of several characters, none of whom has any conception that they might be contributing to a larger work. They are simply keeping journals, writing letters, dictating patient notes or sending telegrams. This multitude of first person accounts creates a rare casting opportunity for an audiobook and this version takes full advantage. There are thirteen speaking roles in fifteen and a half hours. Why not listen to Tim Curry do his best Dutch accent as Van Helsing or to Alan Cumming read Dr. Seward trying to fathom the odd appetite of Renfield? I was only familiar with one other name but expected the voice cast would be selected to hold their own with these well regarded intonations.

When I finally started, I was not disappointed. In fact, I was quickly won over. Sure, Jonathan Harker should have sounded younger, but when Simon Vance switches over to Harker’s impression of Count Dracula, I was happy to hear veteran experience pulling it off. Katy Kellgren makes a convincing and confident Mina Murray. It was while listening to her that my fears of foreign interpretation were replaced with the possibility of the performer drawing emphasis to more interesting directions than I had found on my own passes with the text. Maybe my own consistent internal voice that I was so concerned with protecting could use an occasional shaking up.

Not every actor was my favorite. Lucy was played as too breathy and belittled. But still I was convinced. Vampires could be hunted in foggy Victorian landscapes as readily through my ears as through my eyes. The transportation still happened. I think I’ve found a new way to be haunted. Though when my imagination engaged in tangential directions, that little button that skips things back 30 seconds might get punched a few times.


Audible's Rendition of The Windup Girl Impresses CS Peterson

Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning novel, The Windup Girl, is a dystopian vision of the near future, after the ravages of GMOs run amok and global warming have devastated every ecosystem on the planet. He sets the novel in a future Thailand where cultures clash, everyone is on the take and a Kurtz-like gene-ripping devil lurks in the background. This is a marvelous novel to read, but listening to the Audible narrative performance adds greater depth to the story.

Jonathan Davis is a voice actor of incredible talent. The characters he interprets in the novel are so compelling and consistent in their unique voices that it is difficult to remember there is only one person reading. He is a master of Asian accents so that, even to my Western ear, the difference in tone and cadence between Thai, Chinese and Japanese are clear as day. When I go back to read The Windup Girl after listening to Davis, the voices he created for Bacigalupi’s characters sit in my ear.

In addition to the spectacular performance Davis delivers on The Windup Girl, he has given voice to Blindness by Jose Saramago, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, the Hugo-nominated Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer, and over thirty Star Wars titles. He has garnered multiple well-deserved Audie nominations and awards for his performances.


How To Listen and How Not to Listen -- Lisa Mahoney

Funny Catie mentions The Windup Girl. One recent winter I was so intensely involved in it that I was determined to find a way to listen to it one afternoon when I knew I would be caught in traffic returning from a ski resort to Denver. (Traffic is the BEST time to listen to audiobooks: no valuable reading time wasted, plus, a great story increases your tolerance for idiot drivers.) So, I learned how to have my iPad read anything to me, a built-in function for the visually-impaired. As you might guess, a computer is not good at sounding out exotic names and places, and backing up to repeat pieces is really hard. Which all led me to the discovery that if you don’t memorize the commands for getting into and out of documents and menus before you commit to the visually-impaired menu system, you’re potentially in for a trip the Apple store.

Nowadays I pop for professionally-narrated books. On a recent road trip, my family and I listened to Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, a comic time-travel sci-fi mystery set in the same universe as Willis’ amazing Doomsday Book. To Say Nothing won both the Hugo and the Locus Awards in 1999, and the Audible narration was an entertaining kick. The story is a complicated mystery involving returning a pet cat back to the Victorian Era to fix a time disruption at Coventry Cathedral just before it was bombed by the Nazis while the hero from 2057 suffers from “time lag” exhaustion and boats down the Thames with a new friend and short, great fun. The Audible app lets you back up in 30-second increments to listen to a portion again with just a screen tap.

You can access audiobooks in several ways. The audio companion book is often offered at a greatly reduced price if you buy both the ebook and audiobook at the same time. I recently purchased both versions of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. (Reviewed by me here.) If you switch back and forth from the audio to visual versions of the same book, you are automatically synced to where you left off reading or listening. Awesome! I love technology that makes life easy. Side benefit: Leckie’s villain is named Anannder Mianaai and just hearing it said aloud properly means you won’t trip over it later when you see it in print. Also, in Leckie’s Radch Space there is no gender differentiation. With the story read by a woman, you are forced on a second level to question whether characters you might have subconsciously read as male are in fact female, and a female voice actor reinforces Leckie’s effort to move beyond gender in this series.  

Another way to obtain audiobooks is through your neighborhood library, using ebook and audiobook apps like Overdrive. Get one by logging onto your library’s website and downloading the app your library prefers. Or, download Overdrive from your app store first, and during the account creation process specify your library system. Overdrive will help you search through what’s available. It syncs to keep your place across multiple devices and warns you when you need to return something.

Additionally, there are free audiobook websites out there offering works in the public domain. has lots of classics available in a variety of formats, some of which must be streamed, but others can be downloaded for road tripping or workouts. The choices include classics like Jane Austen and Samuel Beckett, but also a disproportionate amount of spec lit, including the entire catalogue of Frank L Baum’s Oz books, in case you ever wanted to listen to them. Voice actor quality varies. It's free, remember?

However you choose to listen, enjoy!

Mark Springer Recalls a Radio Drama from a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

A long time ago, before the advent of Netflix streaming or any of the ubiquitous home-video technologies we take for granted today, the original Star Wars could only be seen in movie theaters—or listened to as a radio drama on National Public Radio. 

The year was 1981. That spring, NPR aired a 13-part serial adaptation it had produced as part of its NPR Playhouse series, complete with sound effects and music from the film, and with Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniel reprising their roles as Luke Skywalker and C-3PO. (George Lucas reportedly donated the radio rights to the public radio affiliate of his alma mater, the University of Southern California, for $1.) My father recorded all thirteen parts onto a stack of Memorex cassette tapes.

I don’t remember how many times I listened to those tapes. Enough that I knew the story of Star Wars by heart before I saw it for the first time in 1984, when the film finally aired on broadcast television.

I’m glad I discovered Star Wars this way. The radio drama expands considerably on the plot of the film, both by providing crucial backstory on Luke and Leia, and by making the most of details that appear at the periphery of scenes in the movie. The effect is a richer story, not as random or clumsy as the screenplay, with more fully developed characters. I internalized all of this, so that when I saw the film, I filled in the missing parts from memory. I knew why Luke was so unhappy on Tatooine (his best friend, Biggs, had just left to join the Rebel Alliance). I knew why Princess Leia, firmly entrenched in the Imperial establishment, became a Rebel (she witnessed atrocities committed by the Empire). I knew why the droid Uncle Owen bought from the jawas malfunctioned (R2-D2 sabotaged it). I knew what Princess Leia suffered in the torture chamber aboard the Death Star (the horror, the horror). And so much more. For me, the film was an abridged visual adaptation of a longer, more complete story I already loved.

Now that the Star Wars universe has been rebooted, per the terms of the sale of the franchise to Disney, the backstory and character development that made the radio drama superior to the film have been declared “non-canonical” and cast aside like so much Bantha fodder. But the apostates among us needn’t go without: copies of the radio drama can still be found on the Internet, and even at your local library. An elegant version of Star Wars, for a more civilized age. Check it out.