An Audio-Book Review: Into the Soul-Sucking Darkness of Space!


Across the Sea of Suns

By Gregory Benford

Published by The Library of Congress- National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Read by Gary Tipton

 

The Book:

I really wanted to like this story, but I suppose that they cannot all be gems, even when by an author you usually enjoy. It is hard to say where this one went wrong. It has a classic SF premise and some good hard science background and was written by a Nebula Award-winning author, but somehow it just did not come together for me.

Maybe part of the problem is that because I was listening and not reading it was very hard to figure out what was going on since the location seemed to flash back and forth between Earth and an interstellar ram-scoop ship and the worlds it visited without any real warning. I kept thinking to myself, “Where the heck are we know? Is that ship large enough to have trees growing on board and taxies to take people from one place to the next?” Well, no, it just means I missed yet another scene transition and when I flipped back it turned out not to be an obvious to hear one. Very confusing, but I will be the first to admit that books are written to be read, not necessarily listened to. However a well-written book should not suffer when read aloud.

The first clue I had that this was not a book that adapted well to audio format was when some mysterious signals arrived from the stars and the reader was force to read out several minutes of the code. If I was supposed to listen to it and figure out what it meant before the character did, I’ll freely admit I was tuning it all out and waiting for the text to get back to something in English. It probably would have made more sense if read, but then I did have trouble even then. It turned out the message was a hodgepodge of Earthly words in a variety of languages, although why the person figuring it out should just assume they were words in Earthly languages is beyond me. It should have made as much sense as Hieroglyphics did before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, or as much sense as Mycenaean Linear B did before someone finally realized it was Greek. Admittedly if took years of travel to the world of the signal’s origin before they realized that it was an extra-terrestrial repetition of “The Arthur Godfrey Show” in various languages.

The starship travels to a number of worlds at near-light speed and experiences too many modern SF clichés for no good reason, such as casual (and not-so casual) gender changing and some vague lip service to some social issues that might come about (such as a husband waiting years to tell his wife he was born a woman), but the issues are just as quickly dismissed and have nothing to do with the plot, leaving me to wonder why it is even there. Maybe it becomes important two or three books later? Or maybe not?

And then we have the machine civilization that is bent on destroying organic life. I hope that in some book, Mister Benford gets around to explaining how the machines came about since they seem to exist in this story without any trace of an original lifeform to have created and programmed them (I assume they are self-aware and self-programming now, or, at least some are). And meanwhile some of their agents are on Earth causing problems that result in nuclear war which the starship hears about nine years after the fact (My bet is that there ought not to be much of Earth left by the time they get back, if they even bother to return). I did wonder what sort of communications technology they had to hear a coherent signal nine light-years away, but then the natives of the first world they visited were Arthur Godfrey fans… sort of. I honestly wonder if a coherent signal of a radio show could actually be detected that far out and not lost in the interstellar background noise, but apparently the beings on that world are better than our own SETI.

What bothered me most though was an attempt at almost poetic metaphor sprinkled in here and there. That sort of thing should enhance the story, but in this case I felt it distracted from it instead. What can I say. The story had all the required elements, but even so, there was no chemistry.

 

The Audiobook:

It is not easy to assess a reader’s performance when you really do not enjoy the story. As in the first book of this series In the Ocean of Night, Mister Tipton turned in a good, if not an exceptional, reading. He avoids most of the funny voices and mispronunciations that frequently drive me up the wall. I know I do not usually mention when a reader picks a word, mispronounces it and then that word turns out to be repeated constantly in the text. Sometimes it turns out I have been saying the word wrong – I’m no more perfect than anyone and well… English is not predictable. And usually I have forgotten that in the midst of other flaws by the time I get around to writing a review.

However, Gary Tipton did NOT do that. He did vary his voice a bit and some of his vocalizations edged on annoying to me, but considering how hard it was to follow what was happening in the book when listening, that might be just as well. Like last time it was a good reading. It just did not sparkle.

So, to sum it up, this should have been a great book, but was not. Mister Tipton’s reading of it, however at least kept me from flinging it (and half a dozen other digitized books) out my car’s window.

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