Classics of Science Fiction: Audio Productions|
By James Wallace Harris
For the last few years my favorite way to read books is to listen to them - in fact, I've stopped reading novels. From 1/1/4 through 4/24/4 I listened to 14 novels in my spare time, not quite a novel a week. During the same four months last year I only read 4 novels. And there are more reasons why I love audiobooks than the fact that I'm reading more.
Even though I've always think of myself as a bookworm, I've been reading less and less during the last two decades. My eyes have gotten weaker and it's a strain on them to read. My back can no longer handle the La-Z-Boy marathons. Wife, work, friends, family and other interests have cut into my reading time. But most of all, I got tired of reading. Then I discovered Audible.com about three years ago and started downloading and listening to books. Books became exciting again, and I enjoyed them in a way that I haven't since my teenage years.
It took me awhile to get completely addicted to audio books. It wasn't until I hurt my back and couldn't hold a book that I started listening full time. And then I learned some tricks about audio books and MP3 players. Audible.com works with a proprietary format like MP3, and has digital rights management. That keeps you from passing out copies on the Internet. At first I just listened to the audio books on my walks. If I didn't walk, I didn't get any reading done. So I started listening during preparing and eating meals when my wife was gone and got more "reading" accomplished. Even though I only have a ten minute commute, I come home for lunch, and that gives me 40 minutes a day to add to my reading. Then I discovered doing housework while plugged into my Otis MP3 player, which added even more hours to my reading week. All that added up to 10-20 hours of listening to books. A short novel like the early Harry Potter books, run 8 hours. A big Stephen King runs 15-25 hours, ditto for Dickens. The Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy ran just over 30 hours.
That pretty much covers my motive and method, but doesn't explain the reward of listening to books. Most people on finishing a great new novel often will wish it will get the movie treatment. People love it when their favorite books get bought by Hollywood, even though most readers are always disappointed with the results. Now that I've experience dozens of books by audio, my wish is always for a full cast unabridged audio production, like the His Dark Materials trilogy or for the book to get read by a great reader, such as Jim Dale, who does the Harry Potter books. Readings vary from a dull monotone presentation to master readers who can do voices, accents and gender changes, to full cast productions where actors and actresses play every spoken part, and if it's told in third person, adding a solid narrator to tie the voices together.
Great audiobooks sound like plays or listening to a really good oral story teller. Unabridged books means you get every word, spoken at a conversational pace, which makes the story more leisurely. This gives you time to visualize the setting and descriptions, and hearing words spoken often have a magical power on your brain. I have met people who prefer their own inner voices to hired readers, but for me, audiobooks are the absolute best way to experience a novel or story.
Most people tend to skim read books. Many readers are like me, anxious to get to the end, and speed read through long descriptions. This is totally unfair to the author. I hate to admit it, but I've been a bad reader all my life. It wasn't until I was in my fifties, and started listening to books that I really began to appreciate setting, description and words. I always focused on dialog, action and ideas. Listening to books has made them come alive, feel much more colorful and seem three-dimensional. Characterization and point of view are now obvious, as are the other tricks of the writing trade. Bad writing is highly magnified in a good audio production -- in fact, you seldom get to hear bad books because most publishers will only spend the big bucks to create an audio performance if the book is popular. This is why there's such a limited selection of titles in audio format, especially science fiction, but that is changing.
Right now there are essential four formats for listening to books. The oldest and most common is books on cassette tape. An unabridged novel can easily run to 12-15 90-minute cassettes, and thus they were expensive. The industry began as audiobooks for libraries, but abridged selections have been popular in bookstores for the last couple decades. In recent years, the music CD format began showing up - it holds around 75 minutes, shorter than the 90-minute cassette, so it takes more disks to produce a book. At first abridged books started showing up in 2-4 cassette albums that ran $15-25. Now unabridged books are showing up, running 2-3 times the number of cassette or CDs at retail for $30-75, if not more.
Then Audible.com came out with digital downloads, and if you join their club, you can get unabridged books for about $10 each. You download the file to your computer, and from there to a Audible compatible MP3 player, or burn a set of CDs. I much prefer the player. A fourth format is now emerging, the MP3-CD. You can put the largest of novels on a single MP3-CD. I bought a jogger's MP3 compatible CD player for $30. My first MP3 book was White Noise by Don DeLillo. It was $19.95 for a single MP3-CD, as opposed to buying 9 cassettes for $35.96, or 11 CDs for $44.96. BooksOnTape.com is just now starting to offer MP3 editions. $20 for an audiobook is a good deal. I had to pay $35 to Amazon for a 8 CD set of the first Harry Potter and it was discounted 30%. The 5th book, running 23 CDs is $51.
You don't have to be an idiot savant with figures to calculate that listening to books is expensive unless you get them through Audible.com or on a MP3-CD. That 23 CD Harry Potter book could be one downloadable file or one MP3-CD, and should reasonable sell for the same price as a discounted copy of the hardback or even the trade edition, making audio listening a viable alternative to reading. I've made listening to Harry Potter affordable by going in with a friend and I'm buying the odd numbered books and he's getting the even numbered, and we're taking turns listening to the books. I'm willing to pay up to $25 for an audio book, but only if it's one I really really want. And more and more, those books are my favorite books from childhood, The Classics of Science Fiction. Just recently, my all-time favorite book from junior high school, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein, showed up as a full cast audiobook. I was so anxious that I jumped the gun and bought the CD edition at Amazon (if I had waited I could have saved $20 because it showed up at Audible two weeks later). Even though I've read the book six or eight times over the last forty years, I heard things I had never committed to memory. Also the performances were right on in visualizing the characters.
Unfortunately, books from the Classics of SF list are few and far between in audio editions. Dune is the only one I can find from the three-way tie at 1st place, and the cheapest edition, the single disk MP3-CD, is $40. Buying the 22 CD set is $72. I'm not going to try and find all the Classics of SF books on audio to list here - that's too much work and the links are constantly changing, and the books are always going in and out of print. (If you create such a site, send me the link and I'll add it here.) In the future I might review some specific books that I've listened to - I just finished Stranger in a Strange Land and have lots of comments. If you know of any good review sites I'd appreciate the links. Just email me at email@example.com.
I can give you some tips and tricks about searching and shopping for audiobooks. Number one rule: DON'T BUY ABRIDGED BOOKS!!! A crappy book would probably be improved by severe cutting, but your favorite story will feel brutalized. Also, buying abridged books only encourages the publishers to create more of them. Help fight this practice. Many popular books, even at your favorite Borders or Barnes & Noble, are coming out as complete editions, although at a hefty retail price. If you can't afford them, go to Amazon where they are discounted heavily, or do what I do, join Audible, or buy MP3-CD editions. Amazon and Apple's iTunes now distribute Audible.com - but they sell them at the individual price. This is usually much cheaper than large cassette and CD editions, but still way more expensive than belonging to Audible.com. Audible has two plans: $16/month for 1 book and 1 magazine, and $20 for 2 books a month. If you commit for 12 months they will give you a free Otis MP3 player or $100 off of a player of your choice, including the sexy new Mini iPod.
The next tip involves some work. If you know you want a particular book, there is no single source to search for the title. Searching Amazon.com will show you the kinds of editions you find at your local bookstore and it will show you what's available at Audible.com for the single edition price. However, there are other sources to check. There are a number of sites that sell/rent audio books and they don't market through bookstores or Amazon. Amazon does sell used audiobooks - as does eBay, and those are great places to find out-of-print audio editions. If you don't want to buy audiobooks, visit your library. Here's my list of web sites in the order of how I search for a title:
* = Offers audiobooks for rent
An example of how books are listed for sale or rent, and how they come in different formats, editions and readers, I'll use Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:
Like I said, SF Classics aren't well represented in audiobook editions - but the single best source for the SF Classics is probably BooksOnTape.com, but they are very expensive and it's probably a better deal to rent from them unless they start offering more MP3-CDs. They probably have 15-20 of the books from the Classics of SF list. It would be great if they offered the entire list for $19.95 each on MP3-CD. Blackstone also offers a fair number of SF Classics.
Surprisingly, things show up here and there. The Humanoids by Jack Williamson recently showed up at Audible.com. That's not a very popular book, and is often out of print, so it's a nice surprise to see an audiobook edition. Audible does sell a lot of SF/F/H books, including many children's and young adult classics. A word of advice about Audible - listen to the sample before you buy and avoid recording modes 1 & 2. Mode 3 is the highest for the Otis, their custom MP3 player, and mode 4 is perfect for recording CD-Rs. Their CD burning software is flaky but they are planning a new edition that comes with a custom version of Roxio.
The best thing that could happen to audiobooks is if a digital rights standard would emerge and a common downloadable file format would be accepted by all hardware players. Not every MP3 player supports the Audible format. iPods, the 800 lb gorillas of digital music players, do support the format, and you can buy Audible books at iTunes. It would be much more exciting if audiobooks came in WMA format - then they could be sold at MusicMatch, Napster or WalMart websites and work with most digital music players and computers. If a standard format emerges, so it has equal ground with hardback and paperback editions, audiobooks might become more popular than those formats.
However, I'm not sure if downloadable books will be popular with a mass audience. Some people just do not like computers. In that case, I hope the MP3-CD becomes more popular. Most new CD/DVD players can handle MP3, including portable players and car players. The MP3-CD could be packaged and marketed like a CD or cassette book, although it would be better if they were actually shelved with the books in bookstores - thus putting audiobooks on an even footing with hardbacks and paperbacks. Old people, especially the sight-impaired could benefit from just a shift in marketing. The current unabridged books are too expensive and they come with too many disks or tapes that make them hard to handle. The MP3-CD is one book on one disk.
I've showed my Otis player to my friends but so far it doesn't appeal to people. I have burned CD sets of some books and lent them to people and I have had very positive reactions. People do love listening to books once they try them. The problem is getting them. The MP3 type player is the best delivery system but except for people who are MP3 music users, the concept of the digital player hasn't caught on. Steve Jobs and Apple should help change this with the marketing of the iPod and iTunes because they are selling millions of the players. They are so trendy that kids that can't afford them buy white earbuds to appear like they have an iPod and thieves are attacking people specifically for the iPods, another sign they are popular. So far, I'd say 99% of the users of personal digital players use them for music, but I think books will catch on. Has there ever been a science fictions story that predicted people walking around and listening to books?
Once the concept of digital media catches on, cassettes, CDs and even MP3-CDs will fade from the market place as a delivery systems for audiobooks. Once that happens we'll know if audiobooks will have as much appeal as reading books. I hope so because I want more of my favorite books converted to audio. Not that I'm going to give up reading. Once I listen to a really great book that excites me I end up buying the hardback to read, study and keep. As soon as I finished His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, I ordered a set of hardbacks from Amazon. Reading them showed me how much I missed from my listening experience. I've found that any worthy book deserves both a listen and a reading, although most books are just entertainment and escapism and a single listening is all I need.
One last interesting note. I've discovered that I'm much more willing to try different kinds of books by listening than reading. Part of this is due to the limited selection of science fiction and my willingness to try other types of audio fiction rather than going back to reading my standard diet of science fiction. But the other factor is I had developed a reading habit over the years that conditioned me to a certain type of narrative style - something my eyes and patience could easily spot. For example, I'd never read the classic Russian novels because I never could get past the long character names I couldn't pronounce. Listening broke through that barrier. Of course, I still might not recognize those written names after listening to them. Listening tends to make you disassociate from spelling. The upshot of all this is I'm now listening from a wide selection from many genres. When I read books I mostly headed right for the science fiction section and nowhere else. Now that I'm listening, I crave intense, creative books that are well produced. Listening is conditioning me to not put up with bad, weak or even so-so books. Great writing, or even good writing, is made obvious in audiobooks.
It's hard to explain, but there are many factors and techniques that go into writing fiction, such as characterization, dialog, description, setting, plot and so on, and some of those factors are highly magnified in audiobooks. Last year I got from Audible, three short story collections that were supposed to be the best stories from 2002 from Analog, Asimov's SF and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. For the most part, the audio editions made these stories shine, but something else was obvious. Science fiction loaded with concepts, pseudo-scientific words and info-dumps were hurt by the magnification that listening provides. I think it's why so many SciFi movies and television shows seem so cheesy, and why the best of them depend on expensive special effects.
The stories from F&SF, which tend to be more literary and have better characterization were stunning. The Analog stories, which tend to be more traditional were based on big ideas which can easily sound silly. I thought Pat Forde's "In Spirit" was exquisite, and listening showed how magnificent a story it really was, but some of the other stories seemed weaker. Asimov's is the most experimental and ambitious of the magazines and thus making it harder for readers from outside of the genre to get into the stories, or so I would think. I ended up buying all six issues of F&SF when they ran bimonthly reprints of the monthly magazine in 2003, and I was bitterly disappointed when they didn't continue in 2004 because of assumedly poor sales. I have never loved experiencing SF/F short stories more than when listening to these collections from Audible. However, I have to admit that the listening magnification affect I'm talking about clearly showed the weaknesses of our genre as compared to classic or literary stories. I'm thinking audiobook editions would also be hard on some of the books from the Classics of SF list.
Many of the books from the Classics of SF list are being forgotten and not reprinted, so it's unlikely they will get an expensive audio production, but the others that do stay in the public eye will get the treatment and I think those audiobooks will help enhance their reputation. It's a common topic to talk about the loss of interest in reading by young people, so maybe audiobooks will help keep books alive and help books compete with television, movies and video games. I think we might see this when the MP3 generation is given more opportunity to download books.
There are websites LibriVox and TallTale Weekly that provide audiobooks of public domain books like the Guttenberg site for printed books. The concept of public domain audio books will be an interesting development. If we could get computer geeks, experienced with recording audio, with would-be actors, this could be a great match. I would think aspiring actors and actresses would find producing public domain audiobooks a form of practice for their craft and a way to get some notice. Reading with emotion and inflection takes talent and hard work. Cheap computer software and hardward would allow for low cost productions of MP3 recordings that could be freely distributed over the web. A group of actor friends could probably have a lot of fun producing books and stories.
Some science fiction writers, James Patrick Kelly for example, now create or pay for their own audio productions and give them away on the web. And other forms of science fiction can be found as free podcasts on iTunes.
I have a friend who is a teacher and he discovered a way to get kids to enjoy reading in public. He bought a karaoke machine for his class and they love reading into the microphone. Maybe having a computer that records voice would inspire kids to create full cast audio productions? I bought a $29 program called MAGIX Music Studio 7 that emulates a recording studio. It's designed for music, but combined with a USB microphone works great for recording and editing voice work. I'm hoping such desires and technology will inspire kids become audiobook producers. In fact, I wonder if a young would-be science fiction writer couldn't promote an unpublished audiobook over the web better than he could promote a self-published novel on the web. Most people don't like reading ebooks, but kids do love downloading and trading MP3 files.
Reviews of Audiobooks and Audio SF/F/H
Revised slightly 10/27/6