by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 24, 2017
I love listening to science fiction read by great audiobook narrators! It’s standard today for popular books to have an audiobook edition, and audiobook publishers have done an excellent job producing audiobooks for popular SF books from the past. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of science fiction I want to hear that’s still not available. I assume audiobook publishers need to make a buck and are hesitant to produce stories they think won’t sell. Can’t blame them, but what if there are overlooked markets with enough potential customers to generate a profit? Shouldn’t we make our wants known?
For my 64th birthday, I wrote “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for SF Signal. For my 65th birthday, I wrote, “65 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want to Hear” for this blog. If you study the two lists you’ll discover they haven’t changed much, and I’ve only gotten to hear a few of my wishes. Sadly, most of their titles are still my wishes. The big gift this year was The Left Hand of Darkness coming out on Audible. And John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up will be available on the 28th. Now I’ve got to beg for The Jagged Orbit and The Shockwave Rider – Brunner needs to be remembered for more than his brilliant Stand on Zanzibar.
Although I won’t get them for my birthday this year (tomorrow), Recorded Books will soon be releasing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame – volume 1 in December, and volume 2a and 2b sometime in early 2018. Not sure when they will come to Audible. This is tremendously exciting because classic short science fiction has been mostly missing in action on audio. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame comes in at #1 on GoodReads Best Science Fiction Anthology list.
I was especially grateful this past year to finally hear books by Samuel R. Delany. (Babel-17, Nova, Dhalgren). Now I’m begging for Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories by Delany, and Empire Star, my personal favorite. It would be fantastic to hear the complete shorter works on of Samuel R. Delaney like they’ve done for Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, and C. M. Kornbluth. Other complete short story projects I’d love to hear are the stories of Clifford Simak and Robert Sheckley!
By the way, here’s a sample of Sheckley on audio. It’s hilarious.
I’m still shocked I can’t listen to books by these authors:
- Eleanor Arnason
- Alfred Bester
- Michael Bishop
- Pat Cadigan
- Zenna Henderson
- R. A. Lafferty
- Maureen F. McHugh
- Eric Frank Russell
- James H. Schmitz
- William Tenn
- James Tiptree, Jr.
- Wilson Tucker
I can identify four areas of science fiction for publishers to consider: diversity, short fiction, classics, and rediscoveries. Until the 21st-century American science fiction readers mostly read stories written by white males from English speaking countries. Audiobook publishers should search out science fiction written by women, writers of color, or foreign language SF in English translation.
I don’t believe the science fiction genre intentionally excluded women and minorities. When I was growing up science fiction was viciously sneered at by the literary establishment. The genre paid very little, and many believed it only appealed to adolescent social outcasts. I don’t think woman and minorities wanted to write SF. After Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977), science fiction slowly became more popular with the general public. That’s when SF began attracting serious attention, and women and minority writers took more interest. It hurts my feelings today when so many essays about classic science fiction come with trigger warnings about classic science being dominated by white male writers. It’s a complicated issue to judge the past by today’s standards. Any story from the past must be read carefully, but I don’t believe they should be rejected out of hand.
The heart of science fiction has always been the short fiction. For decades novelists did their apprentice work in pulp and digest magazines. However, short fiction has never been popular with the book-buying public. Now that we listen to fiction on smartphones, short fiction should be a perfect for on-the-go “reading.” It would be great to have audiobook editions of the popular magazines. Every year we have several large best-of-the-year anthologies published. These also need to be produced in audio. And we need to hear retrospective anthologies that collect older short stories and theme anthologies of original short stories.
Most of the classic novels of science fiction already have audiobook editions, some are even in their second editions, yet there are a handful of obvious classics that we can’t hear. Finally, there are older books that are no longer read, but if brought back might make exciting rediscoveries. I have trouble reading classic literary novels from the 19th-century but love listening to them. I’m wondering if audiobook editions of Victorian-era science fiction might rebuild reputations.
The stories I hope to hear have a very small potential audience, and thus financially risky to produce. Bestsellers tend to always be new books. Recognized classics stay in print and readers discover them as their tastes mature, promising slow but steady sales. For the past twenty years, I believe audiobook publishers have discovered another market, a nostalgia market, with books appealing to older readers who want to hear their favorite stories they read in their teens and twenties. However, that catch-up market will eventually dwindle. My worry is audiobooks currently in print will go out-of-print (out-of-audio?). The great thing about Audible.com is they keep those out-of-audio editions I bought in the past available to me in my library. But will they for the rest of my life?
I want to hear the science fiction books that have historical and literary value because I’m an amateur scholar of science fiction history. I’d love when forgotten books are rediscovered and become recognized classics, but that doesn’t happen often. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a great example. My interests are like feminists who mine the past for women writers, or African-American scholars who want to unearth novels written by black authors which reveal perspectives previously ignored by history. Older science fiction novels represent forgotten perspectives too. Often these old SF stories are poorly written, but not always, but they reveal speculative ideas that are anthropologically valuable, clues to our past hopes and fears about the future.
Since I joined Audible.com in 2002 and began listening to books, I’ve learned that hearing a story read by a professional narrator is the absolute best way to showcase the writing virtues of a book. I feel writing skills (or lack of skills) are magnified when properly read aloud. A good audiobook narrator will get closer to the best possible presentation for a book, revealing all the aspects the author worked so hard to add, especially ones that are so easily skimmed over by visual speed readers. Dialog becomes dramatic, long narrative passages are richer sensually and intellectually, we can clearly hear the voice of the author, as well as voices of the characters, and we can feel the writing style. Most authors are poor narrators, which is why we want professionals.
I consider an audiobook edition of an old book a kind of validation. It helps stories from past eras to find new readers. Plus, we gain a sense of literary history. My inner reading voice is not very good, and it always sounds contemporary, and a good narrator can make a 19th-century novel sound like the 19th-century, or even a 1940s pulp fiction story sounds like a 1940s film noir movie. Many older stories that I read with my eyes feel dated, quaint, or even clunky, come alive with a skilled audiobook narrator. This was vividly illustrated recently with Frankenstein Dreams, an anthology of 19th-century science fiction that has a wonderful audio edition.
My goal for this essay is to point to science fiction that isn’t in print on audio that audiobook publishers might consider. These titles still have a nostalgia audience or possibly be a thrilling rediscovery to entice new readers, justifying taking a chance on them. In terms of science fiction literary history, I doubt there’s even fifty of us in the world today, and most of them probably still prefer reading over listening. However, I believe the audience for historical science fiction could be expanded greatly if more young people heard stories like “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster on their iPhones.
I use Audible.com as my reference for being audio-in-print. There may be amateur readings on the web, or professional readings not sold through Audible, but such rarities are hard to track down. For the past two years (2015 and 2016) I’ve published lists of SF books I wanted to hear on audio as my birthday wish. I recommend that potential audiobook publishers scan these lists for possible consideration. Only a few titles have gotten audiobook editions since they came out.
Most of the legendary classic science fiction novels of the 19th-century have multiple audiobook editions, especially for Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. I’m only learning late in life that there was a great deal more science fiction published in Victorian times than we remember.
The books I recommend are based on how they are remembered today. I’ve published two lists of science fiction based on the popularity of being on multiple best-of lists. The Classics of Science Fiction and Science Fiction by Women were created from the most popular books found on 65 Best Science Fiction lists published between 1949-2016. HiLoBrow.com has also assembled lists of science fiction books by historical periods: Scientific Romances (1864-1903), Radium Age Sci-Fi (1904-1933), Golden Age Sci-Fi (1934-1963) and New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983). I also use Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction edited by Neil Barron (all editions). Barron’s book is a library reference tool for collection building.
Like I said, Audible.com sells most of the famous science fiction published in the last two hundred years. Most of what’s missing is obscure, but there are some amazing exceptions. I just can’t believe Alfred Bester’s two legendary novels; The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination aren’t available on audio. I assume for legal reasons. And why haven’t we heard any James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) or Joanna Russ (two famous feminist science fiction writers)? Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Tiptree’s best-of short story collection is a must. Russ’ The Female Man is still in print on paper so why not audio? That book was #24 on the Classics list and #7 on the SF by Women Writer’s list. But also, I think her And Chaos Died should be considered. It was originally an Ace Special and nominated for a Nebula.
Most books on the Science Fiction by Women list are available on audio, but that’s because they are generally recent books. The further back in time we travel the fewer women science fiction writers we get to hear. Woman writers weren’t common, but there were more than most readers remember. Zenna Henderson’s lovely People stories from the 1950s and 1960s need to be heard, now collected as Ingathering: The Complete People Stories. Also, Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin (expanded to a trilogy). And I really, really want to hear Women of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason.
Scholars are rereading the old pulps looking for women writers. Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction edited by Lisa Yaszek would be a fascinating collection to hear. The trouble with anthologies is getting permissions to reprint on audio. From now on, anthologists should try to always get permission. It would be fantastic if we could hear Pamela Sargent’s two-volume science fiction by women anthologies: Women of Wonder: the Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s and Women of Wonder: the Contemporary Years, Science Fiction by Women from the 1970s to the 1990s. Both are long out of print so it might be hard to get the audiobook reprint rights.
There are classic anthologies that deserve audio production like Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison that’s still in print, so they have a chance. But most of the famous anthologies of the past, like Adventures in Space and Time edited by Healy and McComas, are long out of print, and it’s doubtful I’ll ever hear them. That doesn’t mean new anthologists couldn’t re-anthologize those stories.
The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer is a new epic retrospective anthology covering science fiction history. I’m crying that it’s not on audio. Why? Why? Why? However, at 1,218 pages it’s probably too expensive to produce, but it’s shorter than the complete Sherlock Holmes collections which are one credit at Audible. I would gladly pay 2 credits for it! The Vandermeers have created a monumental anthology that is diverse and worldly. I beg the audiobook gods to produce it.
Before the 21st-century science fiction had very few African American writers or writers of color from any country. GoodReads has a great list of African American Science Fiction to study. Most of the newer novels are on audio. A great way to deliver audiobook diversity in older science fiction is by producing anthologies. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas would be an excellent choice, as well as its sequel Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Also, consider So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson, or Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. (Update 11/27/17 – Octavia’s Brood is available at Audible.)
After listening to Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims I wanted to hear more science fiction by 19th-century writers. His anthology made me realize that the Victorians could have discussed many science fictional ideas we assumed were first thought up in the 20th century. An obvious wish is to hear Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction edited by Brian Stableford. I really admire Stableford’s insight into the evolution of science fiction, especially his four-volume book, New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romances.
Two novels from the 1800s that I’d like to hear are Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg about using anti-gravity to go to Mars, and Caesar’s Column (1890) by Ignatius Donnelly, a best-seller American utopian. Some of its ideas seem to foreshadow what we’re experiencing today. I was tremendously impressed by Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy when I listened to it last week. Sure, it was mostly lecturing, but it was incredibly creative.
The early part of the 20th-century was a happening time for science fiction, but many of its quasi-famous stories are now forgotten. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsey is an early interstellar travel yarn, a favorite of Robert A. Heinlein, that is religiously philosophical like C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. A classic pulp fiction adventure is The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings. I read a beat-up copy that I found in a tiny, dusty, small-town library in 1966. I thought it would be fun to try it again. Emperor of the If (1926) by Guy Dent was an early alternate history story, and The Young Men are Coming (1937) by M. P. Shiel, a story of flying saucers and fundamental religion.
My last want is Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov, a huge anthology of science fiction stories from the 1930s. These are the stories Isaac Asimov remembered loving growing up, and they are wonderful. The stories aren’t sophisticated, but they do have tremendous enthusiasm for their ideas. Science fiction has a different feeling for each decade, and we’ve mostly forgotten 1930s science fiction. Most of the retrospective anthologies we’ve seen in recent decades seldom anthologize stories from the 1930s (or even the 1940s). Most of the currently recognized classics of science fiction short stories come from the 1950s and later. When I was growing up, the classic stories were mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. I ache to hear these old 1930s stories read by a narrator who can properly dramatize them.
66 Books I Want to Hear for My 66th Year
H=Hardback T=Trade paper M=Mass market E=ebook *=OOP
- A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay – HT
- Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills – OOP
- The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt – TE
- The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt – T
- Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore – TE
The Demolished Man(1953) by Alfred Bester – TE (published 12/5/17)
- A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn – H
- Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement – TE (as Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories)
- Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish – E
- Citizen in Space (1955) by Robert Sheckley – E
- The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester – TE
- Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell – E
- The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker *
- Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys – E
- The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson ME
- Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss – E
- Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn – H
- Empire Star (1966) – T (combined with Babel-17)
- The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz – ME
- Dangerous Visions (1967) ed. Harlan Ellison – TE
- The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
- Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch – TE
- Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty – T
- The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd – *
- Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock – T
- Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad – TE
- Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony – HTE
- And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ – *
- The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker *
- The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelazny – TE
- The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe – TE
- The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn – T
- Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov – *
- A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1974) by Stanley G. Weinbaum – *
- The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison *
- The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ – T
- The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner – TE
- Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
- On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch – E
- Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban – HTE
- No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop – E
- Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin – TE
- Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) by Samuel R. Delany – TE
- Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop – TE
- The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy – E
- Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan – TE
- Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper – TE
- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr. – T
- A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason – E
- Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler – TE
- Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan – TE
- China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh – TE
- Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith – TE
- The Rediscovery of Man (1993) by Cordwainer Smith – H
- Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers – TE
- Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995) – H
- Women of Wonder (1998) (2 volumes) edited by Pamela Sargent – OOP
- Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling – TE
- The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) v.1 and v.2 by Gene Wolfe – T
- The Good Old Stuff (1998) edited by Gardner Dozois – T
- Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) edited by Sheree R. Thomas – HE
- The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn Volume 1 &
2 (2001) – H
- Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany – T
- Strange Relations (2008) by Philip Jose Farmer – M (The Lovers, Flesh, Strange Relations omnibus)
- The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – TE
- Sisters of Tomorrow (2016) edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp