Thursday, November 23, 2017

Speculative Fiction in Audiobooks

Hiromi Goto spoke at the University of Alberta yesterday, as part of the Canadian Literature Centre's Brown Bag Lunch Reading series. Her talk reminded me why I love speculative fiction.

"the best of speculative fiction is not bound by the mechanics of the systems we’ve developed to date, nor confined to the limits of our bodies and social and historical forces. Speculative fiction allows for paradigm shifts that can have us begin experiencing and understanding in new, unsettling ways. They can disturb us, and can propel us beyond the conventions, complacencies, or determinedly maintained ignorance of the ideologically figured present into an undetermined future." -Hiromi Goto
(Goto's braided essay 'Notes from Liminal Spaces' is available online at Uncanny.) 

This year I've listened to some great audiobooks that fall under the speculative fiction umbrella. If you like being unsettled by literature as much as I do, here are some that I haven't already mentioned on my blog:

American War by Omar El Akkad 
12 h 13 m: narrated by Dion Graham.
Powerful. Envisions a future war-torn, environmentally devastated USA that left me feeling so very sad. Generations of hatred and vengeance = destruction. It's received much critical praise but I've also seen a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads and Litsy. Maybe this cautionary tale hits too close to home for some readers? Told as if in excerpts from journals and historical records, a style I like very much. It has much in common with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. American War made a deep impression on me and might be my favourite audiobook of the year.

"You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories."
"Rage wrapped itself around her like a tourniquet, keeping her alive even as it condemned a part of her to atrophy."

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman 
13 h: narrated by Michael Sheen.
Riveting adventure set in an alternate England during an epic flood. Child spies. Wicked adults. Corrupt organized religion. Violence and profanity. And heroic young people determined to save one special baby girl. Volume 1 in The Book of Dust prequel trilogy. I loved being back in the world of His Dark Materials with baby Lyra Belacqua.

"Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens."
"His daemon, a large cat with fur of a thousand beautiful autumnal colours, stalked the corners of the study before leaping gracefully to Coram's lap."

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
11 h 14 m: narrated by Emily Woo Zeller.
This title was recommended to me by SG Wong (when she came to my book club to talk about In for a Pound). I enjoyed the rich historical detail - especially about the domestic milieu for girls and women in early 20th-century Shanghai. I loved the central character, Jialing, who was mistreated because of her mixed heritage, and I adored her helper, a fox spirit with magical powers - but limited ones (because unlimited powers would be too easy, right?). Audiobook narration with tonal Chinese pronunciation by Emily Woo Zeller is an added bonus.

"That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return..." 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado 
8 h 43 m: narrated by Amy Landon.
Surrealism + dynamite writing + queer = so much love for these inventive short stories. One long story assembles (fake?) summaries of Law and Order: SVU tv show episodes into something more like Twin Peaks. Women's bodies are raped, become non-corporeal, and are surgically altered, yet they are also celebrated here. We are physical beings and sexual pleasure is women's birthright. Machado's prose makes my spine tingle and she is my new hero.

"When the baby cries she could be hungry or thirsty or angry or cranky or sick or sleepy or paranoid or jealous or she had planned something but it went horribly awry."
"I don't like the way she's pulling the darts out of the board, like she is yanking on an opponent's ponytail."
"The power went out for the fourth time that week, so we ate by candlelight. I resented the inadvertent romance."

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Also titled: Rivers of London) 
10 h: narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.
Clever, funny, thoroughly entertaining supernatural police procedural set in an alternate modern London. Ghosts, vampires, river deities, Punch and Judy puppet re-enactments... All the scary stuff. Audiobook narrator Kobna Holdbrook-Smith has a versatile way with voicing characters from all sorts of backgrounds. I was late to the party on this. It's first in the Peter Grant urban fantasy series, and I'm glad there are plenty more already published, waiting for me.

"Carved above the lintel were the words SCIENTIA POTESTAS EST. Science points east, I wondered? Science is portentous, yes? Science protests too much. Scientific potatoes rule. Had I stumbled on the lair of dangerous plant geneticists?"

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman 
6.5 h: narrated by the author.
I would have preferred some new twists on these old tales, but it's not that kind of book. If you're looking for a grounding in traditional Norse mythology, this is it. It's always a treat to listen to Gaiman's voice, which is the perfect combination of soothing and alert. His pronunciation of Balder gave me a bit of a start, however. I didn't remember that Odin had a son named Balda. (Doh!)

"The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them."
"'I'm not happy about any of this,' said Thor. 'I'm going to kill somebody soon, just to relieve the tension.'"

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland 
24.5 h: full cast.
A witty time travel adventure told in journal entries, transcripts, letters, memos (expressed in hilarious bureaucratese) and such like. The letters written by Grainne, an Irish witch and spy in Elizabethan England, were my favourite among many fun aspects. Echoes of Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Travelers Wife. This long recording with a cast of thirteen performers was so good that I hardly cared about encountering bad weather during a long driving trip. 

"Reader, if you don't know what a database is, rest assured that an explanation of the concept would in no way increase your enjoyment in reading this account."

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward 
8 h 22 m: narrated by Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk and Retina Wesley.
A heartbreaking and atmospheric National Book Award-winner with multiple narrators about a Mississippi family that is literally haunted by the past: the ghosts of two young black men who won't stay buried. All of the main characters are complex and real. Leonie, an African American drug addict, struggles to be a mother to Jojo, 13, and Kayla, 3, whose white father is about to be released from prison. Lyric and devastating. 

"And then Leonie laughs, even though it's a laugh that doesn't sound like one. There's no happiness in it, just dry air and hard red clay where grass won't grow."

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel 
9 h: full cast.
Near-future science fiction set on Earth. The full cast audio (twelve narrators) is an excellent production choice because, just like the first book in this series (Sleeping Giants), it's written as a collection of audio files. The pace has pep, characters are developed enough to be intriguing, and the whole plot is wildly imaginative. I loved it and the cliffhanger ending has me eager for Book 3.

"If you lived on Earth back then, either your line died out, and you have no descendants at all, or you're an ancestor to everyone alive today. Everyone who lived a couple thousand years ago, and whose line didn't disappear, is your ancestor and mine and everyone else's."

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