Posts Tagged ‘Arthur C Clarke’

Last week was the first time in ages that I’ve listened to a whole audiobook. My iphone is usually swamped with podcasts, and I like a wide variety of music. But I had lots of driving to do – Cornwall to Stockport is a loooooooong way – so some substantial listening seemed a good idea.

By happy coincidence, my local library had an audio version of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, which was already on my to-read list. I also picked up Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, because if you’re going to listen to a random book it might as well be a classic.

From the start, this made for a different driving experience. My usual car habit is to listen to rock that was new when I was young – when your favourite bands have broken up, reformed and done a few reunion tours, you know you’re not ‘down with the kids’, but Superunknown is still an awesome album. But it’s hard to headbang to an audiobook, and they took more attention. Not so much that I was a hazard on the road, but to the point where driving soon achieved a trance-like quality, reflexes doing a lot of the work, the part of my brain that listens to the satnav barely even a conscious thought.

Listening rather than reading affected the pace at which I consumed the books. I think that, for the literary purist, this is an advantage of audio. Readers can’t skim over the bits that are slow or bore them. Every word is a beat in the ‘reading’ experience. It’s a slower experience, partly because of this but also because reading out loud takes longer than reading in your head.

One side effect I’d not considered before is the little pleasures you lose. You don’t get the feel of how many pages you have left, and counting down CDs and tracks isn’t quite the same. You don’t get the brief, anticipatory pause of turning the page.

In exchange you get to listen to a voice actor, a professional performer of words, and that’s interesting in itself. I imagine that good voice actors are often forgotten by their listeners, as their voices carry the texture of the story, heightening the author’s work rather than drawing attention to themselves. Certainly I had a lot of that while listening to Rivers of London, but when I remembered to pay attention I enjoyed the reader’s voice, his firm but friendly tone, the use of pauses and emphasis.

Rivers of London worked well as an audiobook. The narrator – I forgot to make a note of his name – fitted well with the tone of the book and its point of view character. A bit of a modern London accent, nothing over-done or drifting into comedy cockney. I was engaged and enlivened both by his voice and the story, and it kept me going for miles. This may explain why I enjoyed this book more than many of my friends – SiC’s comment yesterday seems pretty representative.

The City and the Stars was another matter entirely. It’s written in an old-fashioned, expository style. The voice was older and less lively. The whole tone of the experience was soporific. Struggling to stay alert, I gave up after half an hour and went back to growling along with Soundgarden.

It’s not that this was a bad book. I haven’t got far enough to judge that yet. But the experience of listening rather reading accentuated its flat emotional tone, and it turns out that, when trying to stay alert, that’s a bad thing.

I’m pretty much converted back to audiobooks. They’re a good way to consume books while doing other things. I’ll probably even finish The City and the Stars, as a bit of restful entertainment while I do chores in the evening. But it’s interesting to notice how the format changes the reading experience. It’s not necessarily better or worse, just… different.

What do the rest of you think? Do you listen to a lot of audiobooks? Have you found that some work and some don’t? Which ones do you particularly recommend?

Science fiction has a very variable relationship with religion and faith. Both its pulp adventure roots and its lofty scientific ideals initially pushed it into a shallow and oppositional relationship with religion. But when it gets to grip with faith, sci-fi can create something powerful.

In a recent Guardian blog, Damien Walter asked whether God has a place in science fiction. For me, this misses a more human question. Opinions vary greatly on whether God is present in our lives. But that people experience faith, a set of religious ideas and emotional experiences, is hard to deny. And that experience has been important throughout human history.

In as far as it tackled religion, early sci-fi was concerned with the trappings and rituals rather than the emotional experience. Pulp stories used religion as a sign of the exotic, of strange foreign people the heroes should civilise/shoot/snog. More idea-oriented stories tended to set up religion as a source of superstitions, to be reasoned with and debunked. When elements of real religions turned up it was so that authors could offer rational alternatives, as in Arthur C Clarke’s depiction of the Bethlehem star as a nova (The Star, 1955) or Lucifer as a misunderstanding of our alien saviours (Childhood’s End, 1953).

In recent decades, things have got more complicated. We’ve seen Iain M Banks explore the alienness of transcendence in The Hydrogen Sonata and the emotional impact of a man-made Hell in Surface Detail. Julian May‘s Saga of the Exiles and Galactic Milieu books are full of Catholic characters, as well as a transcendent future based on the theology of real Catholic scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a guy with some pretty wacky ideas for a Jesuit – a century or two earlier the Inquisition would have taken their flaming torches to him). The rebooted Battlestar Galactica, though not always sophisticated or coherent in its handling of faith, did place religion centre stage.

For my money, the best example is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This uses an intriguing sci-fi setting to explore the emotional experience of faith. It made a belief system that is alien to me – Jesuit-flavoured Catholicism – feel real, meaningful and comprehensible. And it used it to shine light on its sci-fi concepts.

Sure, there are still a lot of poor portrayals of religion in sci-fi (I’m looking at you Star Trek, with your ‘this whole planet worships the cheese god‘ approach). But there are poor portrayals of everything. What matters is what the good examples do, and science fiction can do faith well.
So what do you think? Know some particularly good or bad examples I’ve missed? Think I’m completely off the mark? Have faith in every word I write? Let me know.