Oct 12, 2009

Steampunk Audiobooks

I abide by a very dense schedule. It used to be busy, but now it's just packed very tightly. Part of packing one's schedule tightly (some call this time management, but given the attitude towards time in steampunk, I'd like to avoid giving the impression I can manage an abstraction), if one is inclined towards reading voraciously as I am, is the use of audiobooks.

I first started using audiobooks to augment my literary intake the semester I took Science Fiction and Children's Literature at the University of Alberta. Most of the books were available at audible.com, so I signed up for a membership. It's been my way of staying ahead with my reading ever since. Most often, I listen to the audio on my cycling/bus commute, and then make notes in my hardcopy of the book in the evening. Earlier this year, I lamented the scanty choices a steampunk scholar has in audiobooks. In the past two months, I've seen a marked change in that situation. Here are a list of steampunk audiobooks available through Audible, as well as a link to a podcast I've listened to a few episodes of which may interest my visitors.

Steampunk at Audible.com:

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon: Not including the classics that inspired steampunk, this was the first steampunk-related-book I could find at Audible a year ago. The reader is Dick Hill, and while he's the right man for the job of delivering the complex ironic tone of Pynchon's epic monstrosity, many listeners reviewing the audio version have missed these nuances entirely, thinking him an over-actor. Hill is a master of accents, bring to life the multicultural cast of Against the Day. At over 53 hours, it's an investment of time, but clearly demonstrates the value of a membership with Audible, since it's still only 1 credit (I get 2 credits a month under Audible's platinum plan for 22.95 USD)!

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells: Classics are easy to come by in audiobook, but a lot of classic audiobooks are just cheap recordings by amateurs who like the fact they don't have to pay copyright for public domain works. What's nice about sites like Audible.com is that you have the option to preview the narrator. As I stated, I really liked Dick Hill's reading of Against the Day, but there are a number of unabridged audioversions of The Time Machine, so your mileage may vary. 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The other trouble with classics in audiobook is that if they're in translation, odds are its an old one, since those versions are the ones in the public domain. In the case of Verne's works, that means the translation is likely garbage, since most of the early English translations were plagued by rush-jobs or censorship. This particular version is one of those bad translations, but given the choice of unabridged audio versions of 20,000 Leagues, this one struck me as the best - Frederick Davidson, the actual narrator (part of the website states that it's Alfred Molina). I'm personally looking forward to an audioversion of Walter James Miller's translation myself, read by someone with a French accent.

Mainspring by Jay Lake: I've wondered several times if I would have liked Mainspring better if I hadn't listened to it. William Dufris is a little too breathy, seemingly trying too hard to convey how awesome Lake's secondary world is, rather than letting the text to speak for itself. I'd recommend reading over listening, but then again, I like Dick Hill.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson: Jennifer Wiltsie's narration adds a wonderful layer to Stephenson's already wonderful text, and each chapter break is heralded by some appropriate classical music, which adds both to flavor and comprehension. I can recommend this audiobook without reservation.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: I had taken a previous stab at reading Perdido and couldn't get into it, but when I saw the audio version read by John Lee show up on Audible earlier this summer, I thought I'd give it another shot. Even at 2 credits (which seems a ridiculous price to pay for an audiobook half the length of Pynchon's Against the Day) this is still an audiobook worth having. I've listened to John Lee read Orhan Pamuk's Snow, and while I didn't really love the book, I loved Lee's narration. He has a great voice, and he does a fantastic job with Perdido. In my reading so far, I think Perdido should be considered steampunk canon, so it's required for any serious steampunk scholar.

Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel: Some Canadian steampunk for your collection. I haven't finished wending my way through Airborn, book one of Oppel's high-flying series, but I needed another audiobook for my commute, and Skybreaker is the only book of the series available in Canada (feel the irony - it's as bad as the time I went to download Great White North by Bob and Doug MacKenzie on Itunes and was informed they couldn't sell that to my geographic location). It's not a huge problem though, as readers can come into this series anywhere without feeling disoriented, so if you have to start with Skybreaker, you'll be all right. Given the amazing full-cast reading (not a dramatization, but multiple readers), it would be worth jumping in mid-stream regardless. Oppel's a lot of fun if you're looking for a straightforward, high flying adventure. Recommended for car trips. US readers can grab Airborn here at Audible. Canadians should write their Member of Parliament and complain.
Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel: The same full-cast approach as the first two books, so unless Oppel trips at the finish line with book three of this series, it's bound to be great! 

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld: This audiobook is as gorgeous as the hardcover print edition. Alan Cumming (Nightcrawler from the X-men movies) does a wonderful job of narration, and the opening theme music sets the mood for the entire piece. At 8 hours, it's an easy listen, and Westerfeld's pacing and enjoyable characters are a delight - it made my commute on the bus blur by!

The Windup Girl by Scott Bacigalupi It's up for a stack of awards, and deservedly so. This was my best read of 2009, and I consumed most of it via audiobook. While Jonathan Davis will likely prove too deadpan a narrator for most, I really enjoyed his even-tempered vocalizing. He was great to listen to for Don DeLilllo's Cosmopolis, and I found myself making comparisons between the novels as a result. This book is highly, highly recommended.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest: One more I haven't read, but I saw the movie (hangs head in shame)! So much steampunk, so little time. I can recommend this on the basis of the narrator once again. Simon Vance is one of the best narrators in audiobooks.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist: This is an abridgment of volumes 1 & 2, which is a little disappointing, but on the plus side, unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this one is really read by Alfred Molina. I recommend listening to the audiobook if you need some tight pacing, but if you need full explanation, then combine the audiobook with the hard-copies. That's what I did, listening to the audiobook at a breakneck pace (by way of comparison to reading), and then re-reading and skimming over passages in the hard copies. Made for a great experience of this artfully written, by-the-numbers adventure story. While the tone is very literate, don't expect this book to change your world. It's the sort of escapism guys like Michael Chabon is always championing. The narrator's quite good, but I should warn the prudish to steer clear of this one, which gets a bit naughty in a Victorian way many times. You can also get the unabridged version of The Dark Volume as well.

Larklight by Philip Reeve: Narrator Greg Steinbruner is not a favorite of mine, and the editor left great looming gaps in the audio, ostensibly for young listeners to absorb the text. For an adult, it's maddening, and I've been forced to listen to it at double speed on my iPod. Further, Steinbrunner is an adult, and the first-person narrator of Larklight is a young boy - listening to Oppel's Skybreaker demonstrates the efficacy of using young voice talent to read young personas. Steinbruner sounds like an adult playing a kid, and mostly comes off petulant. Finally, the audiobook for Larklight should be seen only as accompaniment for the book, which features great illustrations that contribute greatly to the narrative. Sequels Starcross and Mothstorm are also available.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman: Whether they're steampunk or not is up for debate I'm sure, but these full cast dramatizations (and yet not abridged!) audiobooks of Pullman's His Dark Materials are among my favorite audiobooks of all time, with Pullman himself providing very able narration. If you enjoyed the books, these audio versions are a great way to revisit the adventures of Lyra and Pan.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: I'm going to give this book a second run by audiobook, because Kate Reading, one of my favorite narrators is reading the parts from Briar's point-of-view, and Wil Wheaton reads Ezekiel's parts. Sometimes books are just meant to be read out loud (Gail Carriger's Soulless being an excellent example). In addition, given the number of awards this book has gone up for this year (Nebula, Locus), I'm thinking I need to pay closer attention in my second read, to see if I missed something the first time around.

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann: I wouldn't recommend the actual book of this audiobook, and lesser still it's amateur-hour audio version, which is plagued by poor fidelity and a terrible narrator. This is one of the worst audiobooks I've ever listened to, and one of my least favorite steampunk books to boot. Two thumbs way, way down.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion: A steampunk novel-of-ideas with Shakespeare's Tempest as its foundation - sounds like it would be great, and if postmodern fiction is your cup-of-tea, and you can stomach William Dufris' adenoidal narration, I highly recommend it. Dufris nearly ruined my listening of Mainspring, until I adjusted my brain to get over how much I dislike his voice. In some ways, he does suit the voice of the narrator, but there's only so much of his nasal whining I can take. Make sure and check out the preview first. 

Other Steampunk Audio sources

There are some wonderful odds and ends to grab for FREE as well, and SFF Audio has links to the steampunk classic "Lord Kelvin's Machine" by James P. Blaylock, "The Shattered Teacup" by George Mann (which comes after the Affinity Bridge), and a link to the now defunct Steampod.org, a podcast devoted solely to original steampunk short stories.I've only listened to "Cold Duty" by Dan Sawyer, but aside from the preamble by the editor-in-chief of Steampod, I found it to be well-written and narrated. I'm also interested in The Gearheart, a serialized steampunk tale, which I discovered putting this posting together, and is also available as a podcast through iTunes. Do a steampunk search in iTunes and you'll find Natania Barron's Aldersgate series in podcast, as well as the aforementioned Steampod. You can likely find a number of these books on iTunes as well, but you'll pay more money to get them than if you sign up at Audible. And they're not even paying me to say that!

For those interested in history relating to steampunk (or for those who hang out with steampunks who take their anachronism as seriously as a historical reenactor), I highly recommend Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain and The Age of Victoria from the award winning BBC series This Sceptered Isle. I used both to prepare for presentations at Steam Powered in the fall of 2008, and they made me sound more knowledgable than I actually am.

Word is that Gail Carriger's Soulless is receiving an audio treatment even as I write this, and given the appearance of Westerfield's Leviathan on this list, I think the next year will see a large number of steampunk audiobooks. I welcome any additions to this list by way of comment, as I'm as eager to hear about more steampunk audiobooks as I am to tell about them.

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful list! Thanks for the info and the mini-reviews!

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  2. No problem Celi.a! My apologies to anyone who came by the site earlier today while I was experimenting with Blogger templates. Lots of pretty looks with great functionality, but there were little quirks with each that made me revert back to the basics.

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  3. What books would you like to see publishers put out in audio... I ask because I am an audiobook publisher.

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  4. John - email me at mikeperschon@shaw.ca - would like to chat through there as well. But, for the comment section, my vote would be Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Steampunk Trilogy by Paul DiFilippo, and, as I've already stated, an audiobook of one of the recent, well-translated versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

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  5. If you can find them, I'd reccomend the Space: 1889 audio drama produced by Noise Monster...
    http://www.noisemonster.com/products/faq.shtml

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  6. Great list thank you I've been looking for them on Audio, now if it Audible.com would release them for Australia.

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