My Favorite SF Audiobook Listens of the Year

Holiday travelers, fear not! Whether you be road trippin’, air trippin’, or train track hoboin’, here are some excellent audiobook recs to help keep your eyes on the road or your hands off that child in the seat behind you who won’t stop singing tunes from the latest animated hit. Plus, your ears are occupied so, sorry, dude who wants to talk the whole flight. You’d really love to talk, but wha—? huh?…*shakes head and gestures to noise-canceling headphones.*


That was my opening for last year’s audiobook listicle. I just like it. I also like to show off how rude I am on airplanes. At the time, I was relatively new to audiobooks, I kind of hated them, but I thought they would help improve my listening skills, and most importantly, they would make my cooking and jogging and driving time more efficient. I still kind of hate them, but while I’m better practiced at listening to my books now, it’s still not the best method, with the exception of these wonderful, entertaining narrations that sometimes supersede the actual books.

In order of Best to IDunnoThey’reAllPrettyDamnGood, here are my Top Ten SF Listens of 2015 (including zero actual books from 2015):

*Also, I never do arbitrary Top Number lists. This just happened to work out as a Top Ten. Serendipitous enjoyment count!

 

The Absolute Best

 

  1. The Girl in the Road (2014) by Monica Byrne, narrated by Dioni Collins and Nazneen Contractor

TheGirlintheRoadACollins and Contractor bring to life the vibrant and complicated protagonists of Byrne’s dark and wondrous tale. The tech is high, the psychological depths are low, but both narrators will pull you along into all of Byrne’s sketchy alleyways of the subconscious, and claustrophobic, underwater air bubbles. You’ll go willingly, just to hear more of their hypnotic, foreboding cadences.

Warning: Do not jog in public listening to this. You’ll yelp during the underwater part and it might scare pedestrians. (I totally didn’t do that.)

% listened vs. % read: 100/ 50 – I couldn’t stop listening to them, even when I had time to read.

 

  1. Lagoon (2014) by Nnedi Okorafor, narrated by Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe

LagoonAAlthough Okorafor’s insightful and rambunctious tale should be an easy ride for any enthusiastic narrator, Andoh and Onwukwe’s alternating takes on the chaos that follows an alien arrival in Lagos, Nigeria are captivating and suspenseful. Both narrators bring humor and gravitas to every facet of the tale, and when they sidestep into pidgin English without warning, their acting will help you absorb it all without recognizing a single syllable.

% listened vs. % read: 70/30

 

  1. The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995) by Neal Stephenson, narrated by Jennifer Wiltsie

TheDiamondAgeAStephenson’s stitch-shit-together style would give any narrator a workout, but Wiltsie can handle anything he throws at her. From Nell, the little girl; to Dojo, the martial artist mouse from Yorkshire (???); to Carl Hollywood, the Southern ractor; to Judge Fang, the Chinese Confucian judge from Brooklyn, there is no random characterization that Wiltsie can’t master. Without her, I would have dismissed this book without thought. But good god, she’s amazing.

I just love her “Dojo.” Makes me smile to think about it.

% listened vs. % read: 90/10

 

The I Dunno They’re All Pretty Good and I Suck at Ranking Things list

  1. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) by Claire North, narrated by Peter Kenny

TheFirstFifteenLivesofHarryAugustAPeter Kenny can switch accents and personalities on a dime, and his acting is like buttah, but when the protagonist and antagonist share the scene, Kenny portrays gripping game-playing tension that will make you late for work because you don’t want to stop listening and get out of the car.

% listened vs. % read: 50/50

 

  1. Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner, by Erik Bergmann

StandonZanzibarAIf there’s one New Wave SF classic that translates well to the audio format, it’s this media-saturated, future-shocked treatise about globalization and sensory overload. Bergmann is the personification of Eptification and you better Sheeting deal with it, man! Best for early in the Anti-Matter, when you need a good wake up call.

% listened vs. % read: 50 /50

 

  1. The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) by Jack Vance, narrated by Arthur Morey

TheEyesOfTheOverworldAIt’s possible that I would not have recognized the humor in Vance’s Dying Earth stories without Morey’s gravelly, self-important airs while voicing the great anti-hero Cugel. He delivers overwrought Arthurian greetings with deadpan grace, and carries Cugel from hapless adventures to mad scramble escapes in smooth CYA style. Plus, this is the best way to find out how to pronounce Vance’s off-the-wall character names.

% listened vs. % read: 50/50

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez, narrated by John Lee

OneHundredYearsofSolitudeALee presents Márquez’s pondering, mellifluous narratives about the Buendia family in the fictional Macondo with unhurried ease. Like a grandfatherly storyteller on a porch swing (or tied to a tree!), he’ll impart to you the illusions and allusions that haunt colonial Latin American life. Perfect as a companion guide to the original Spanish-language version, Cien años de soledad.

% listened vs. % read: 100/100 in español

 

  1. Scanners Live in Vain (1950) by Cordwainer Smith, narrated by Jeremiah Costello

ScannersLiveinVainAThis upgraded cyberman short tale could only be better if they just let a computer do the talking. It would have saved money, but Costello’s expert use of rapid, monotone speech somehow conveys both the mechanical limitations of post-humanism and the utter desolation of “The Great Pain of Space.”

% listened vs. % read: 100/0

 

  1. Osama (2012) by Lavie Tidhar, narrated by Jeff Harding

OsamaAudDetective noir with comic book flavor, hints of alternate worlds, a vein of historical journalism, and light, heart-tugging sentimentality. Better than any prime time comic news show, Harding’s intonations brilliantly convey Tidhar’s sense of absurdity at how the tragic violence of our world might appear to an alternate universe without the GWoT, while at the same time leveling blame at the appropriate parties. Also, bonus points for Tidhar for mentioning Chile, 1973.

% listened vs. % read: 100/0 – all on a weekend of gorgeous spring jogs.

 

  1. Odd John (1935) by Olaf Stapledon, narrated by Nigel Carrington

OddJohnACarrington portrays the codependent interactions of the arrogant “homo superior” John and his “pet” errand-runner older friend as genuine and manipulative, while Stapledon’s narrative philosophizing feels natural and absorbing in this disturbing tale about humanity’s next step. The meditative navel-gazing might result in too-long jogs as you lose the trail to follow Stapledon’s addictive speculative reasoning.

(ODDly enough, his Last and First Men (1930) is a great book, but not so good on audio.)

% listened vs. % read: 70/30

Honorable Mention

  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke, narrated by Simon Prebble

JonathanStrangeAPrebble does Regency-era propriety full of humorous subtext with great skill, making the audio format an ideal method for enjoying this delightful but chunky 1000-page tale. Prebble is a fabulous narrator, but, despite criticism that Clarke wrote the book with too much male tone (yes, that was a criticism in high profile places), I have always read the narrator as a woman, and would have preferred a female voice actor. However, this book is the best non-human cooking companion I’ve ever had.

% listened vs. % read: 70/30

 

My selections are still heavy on British male narrators, but I discovered some female narrators who landed some really cool books. I complained last year that men are typically cast for “serious” science fiction, while female narrators are typically cast for young books, and I noticed the same trend this year. Books like The Diamond Age (a little girl’s storybook, mostly) and The Girl in the Road (not young, but seemingly marketed that way) subvert that trend, but all of these choices are rich, interesting novels that will please any fan of SF.

Narrators to purchase without a second thought: Dioni Collins, Nazneen Contrator, Adjoa Andoh, Ben Onwukwe, Jennifer Wiltsie, and Peter Kenny. If you see their names, grab it!

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17 thoughts on “My Favorite SF Audiobook Listens of the Year

  1. So glad you’re doing audio book recommendations. Two whole days before I start road trippin’ too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It took me a while to get into audiobooks, but now I can’t live without them. They do make cooking, cleaning, etc. a lot more efficient because I like multitasking and it also makes unpleasant chores go by a lot quicker.

    Anyway, I’m off to check out the audiobook for Lagoon now, no idea until I saw this that an audio version existed for it. Thanks!

    Like

  3. So how many audiobooks did you listen to total this year? I was planning a list like this, but then I realized that I had (have so far) listened to nine total, seven of which are Harry Potter. Not a lot to say there, except to keep repeating about how much I love Jim Dale’s voice…so might have to trash the audio book post. Oh but right now Erika is reading Iluminae on paper and I am listening to it and we are going to do a dual review.

    Thanks to your glowing recommendation my mom got me the audio book of Jonathan Strange at some point this year, and I am very excited for listening to that in the new year. I also think that is the only way I am ever going to get through the entire thing…I haven’t been much into massively long books lately. I was thinking I def wanted to read Lagoon instead of listen to it, but now I think I’ve changed my mind.

    Good list.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      About half the books I read this year, I engaged in the audio format at least a little bit, so about 40. Geez, that sounds like a lot more than I thought, but I just counted and there it is. I’ve gone from hating them to relying on them. I usually go for them if I think a book will boring and I want to blast through it, or if it’s a newer release that I just want to squeeze it in.

      Yes, Jonathan Strange is a very good audiobook, but I always imagined the story coming from Clarke herself, so I was disappointed they didn’t cast a woman to narrate the book.

      Lagoon is the most fun I’ve ever had with an audiobook. The narrators are incredible!

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  4. Peter S says:

    What is your favorite source of audiobooks? Do you get them from your library, or can you get them through a service like Audible.com ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I don’t really have a favorite, frankly. I’m addicted to the Amazon/Audible ecosystem, but Bezos gets on my nerves. They get so much criticism for their tax practices, and even though that’s not unique to Amazon, they seem to draw the most ire. I keep trying to leave, but I keep coming back. The tech is great, and I love “whispersync.” Plus, I try to pay artists whenever I can, so borrowing or buying used isn’t my preference if the author is still alive. (And I like to write all over my books and the library doesn’t appreciate that.)

      Here are some good non-Amazon/Audible audiobook sources that have caught my attention:
      http://lifehacker.com/five-best-audiobook-services-1688572545

      http://www.digitaltrends.com/web/best-websites-for-free-audiobooks/

      Like

      • Peter S says:

        I don’t like Audible because it’s focus is on being a subscription service with a high monthly fee – at least it’s high for me. I had only heard of a couple of the sites listed in the articles – so thanks for the links. Librivox sounds fun with its books being read by volunteers!

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          They’re subscription fee is high, and it took me a few years to figure out how to use it to my advantage. Fortunately, I read enough older books that don’t have the updated whispersync tech, which makes the audio version two or three times more than the cost of the subscription, so I save my credits for those (Vance’s Dying Earth). Nowadays, I’ll go months avoiding audiobooks, rack up a bunch of credits and consider canceling, only to suddenly crave them and spend all of my credits in a short time. But I’m always on the lookout for better services.

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  5. marzaat says:

    I’m surprised Brunner in Dos Passos mode works well on audiobooks. (Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts and lectures, but find that fiction takes too much concentration on audio.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’m like that sometimes. There are some days (or weeks) when I can’t handle audio fiction, so I’ll just listen to podcasts. Or I discover a new band, or my mind keeps drifting towars work, so music dominates my listening time.

      It does take a lot of concentration, and it was a skill I had to develop. I’ve never been a good auditory learner but Girl in the Road and Lagoon take no effort at all.

      I don’t care for most older fiction on audio, but more recent fiction can be really good. Dynamic vintage fiction is good and Brunner’s Dos Passos style was incredibly entertaining, but that’s rare. And it’s not always a time saver if I have to go back and read passages all the time.

      More complicated genre fiction I avoid in audio. Viriconium and River of Gods are two audiobooks that didn’t work for me because I value those authors’ prose so much. I want to look at the words and reread sentences all the time. For easier genre books with lots of dialogue, audio can amp up books whenever reading them puts me to sleep.

      Like

  6. […] story about nested stories. It’s likely that the textual experience is less gratifying, but the audio version heightens the experience, given narrator Jennifer Wiltsie’s adroit, elastic voice. Much as I wanted to roll my eyes during […]

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  7. The list looks great, feel free to post a link on my Favorites post if you want.

    I have Fifteen Lives on Kindle, but now I think I just want to get the audio book when I decide to read it.

    It is amazing how the right narrator(s) can really bring a story to life. I’m struck by that whenever I read a book first and then listen to it, or split between the two like you have done. I find that particularly true when a good narrator, like Gaiman for example, reads their own work and can put the emphasis where they intended to when writing it.

    I’m listening to Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson right now and am enjoying the narrator. I believe it is a book I would have quickly set aside, unless I was in just the right mood, had I been reading it myself as the science-y sections can be a bit dry. The narration gives them more interest, particularly when it is the computer telling the story. The producers but a nice modulation to the narrator’s voice during those parts which keeps me interested enough even when I’m ready for it to get back to the main narrative.

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  8. I listened to a big portion of Aurora and I liked the narrator a lot- she did ship so well- but the ten I listed above beat it out, that’s how good they are. Ooh, and I listened to Binti by Nnedi Okorafor today and it makes for a really good audiobook, too.

    I’ll go link it right now. Thanks!

    Like

  9. […] Amazing apartment. Amazing job. Amazing books. The audio version of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon was as good as I’d heard. Okorafor is writing some of the best science fiction being published today. Fist of the Spider […]

    Liked by 1 person

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