The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 2 edited by Allan Kaster (CD review).

Audio Text keeps producing good packages of Science Fiction audio literature and the trend continues with this offering of six excellently narrated stories. Not short stories, they are classed as short novels with each one lasting about a couple of hours, so giving the listener a broader more complete experience. Something to get your teeth into, so to speak, resembling more a good solid lunch rather than an odd tapas or two and talking about eating, I’m sure this will be popular as a Christmas present to be enjoyed following the feast many people endure.

One story that got my attention immediately was Kij Johnson’s ‘The Man Who Bridged The Mist’. The author has written many successful books including ‘The Fox Woman’ and she is now assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at Kansas University. Not only has the story featured in this collection won the Hugo Award, it also won the Nebula Award, not bad going at all and, as you would expect from listening to previous collections from Audio Text, it is expertly narrated.

The story concerns an engineer called Kit Meinem of Atyar who has the job of building a bridge across a gulf that separates the Empire’s continents, but this is no ordinary bridge because it has to traverse strange mist, particular to this planet and unlike any other mist seen before. Rasali is a robust woman, a native of the shoreline beside the mist and she is in charge of a ferry that is able to make journeys to the other side. It’s almost like the river Styx. The mist isn’t gas and it isn’t water but somewhere in between and with strange creatures lucking in its depths, it’s a mysterious and dark place that nobody enters and escapes to tell the tale.

There are well defined characters with vivid contrasts between the city-born engineer and the rustic natives. It’s a well-told story in the written and spoken word, one to be enjoyed.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of ‘Shades Of Milk And Honey’, ‘Glamour In Glass’ and the 2011 Hugo Award-winning short story ‘For Want Of A Nail’. Her short fiction appears in ‘Clarkesworld’, ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Asimov’s Magazine’. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Chicago. She is in this collection with the story called ‘Kiss Me Twice’, which is basically a detective story in a futuristic setting which involves artificial intelligence and human combined in an attempt to solve crimes. She is also noted for her fictionalised character settings in the 18th and 19th century.

Ken Liu’s ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ is a powerful story set during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s. Unit 731 was where horrific experiments were carried out on Chinese prisoners, experiments devoid of humanity, to the extent that about 250,000 died. Nobody escaped. At the end of the war, all survivors were killed and the Americans under MacArthur didn’t prosecute the Japanese but used the experimental research for their own purposes.

The story is told as if from looking down from space through a telescope, going back in time through the ages to witness events that took place in the past. Despite being in the past, they affect the future and the modern countries of Japan and China. It’s a rather harrowing story, which could really only be told in this way. Ken Liu is a prolific author with great skill in relating events and this translates very well into audio. While it is impossible to like the story because of the content, it’s one that must be respected as a lesson from history which, despite our will to avoid repetition, will surely one day come back to haunt our future.

Robert Reed’s ‘The Ants Of Flanders’ seems to begin with a conventional alien invasion story with a 16 year-old boy, Simon, who strangely doesn’t seem to be able to experience the emotion of fear. A huge spaceship with a solar sail crash lands into Earth, enveloping one side of the planet while the other struggles to survive. The identity of the aliens becomes merged with humans and in the confusion, it’s difficult to know who the enemy really is, especially when some humans are converted.

This isn’t a conventional invasion story because it goes off into tangents, examining moral and social philosophy and what it is to be human. Robert Reed has been writing for many years and will be well-known to most Science Fiction readers out there, so this is one they will definitely want to experience.

Allen Steele writes really good, so-called, hard Science Fiction. An exponent of astronautics, his stuff is realistic and compelling. He is in this collection with a story called ‘Angel Of Europa’ which involves an expedition ship to the planet Jupiter. The main character, Otto Danzig, a German engineer, wakes up from hibernation after six months in the tank being repaired from a fatal airlock accident. He is required by the captain and crew, not for his engineering abilities but his role as arbiter of disputes. It was his job to sort out any grievances that took place during the long voyage from Earth.

The dispute was rather significant, which it had to be if he was revived slightly prematurely and it involved death and probably murder of two men on the satellite Europa. The second of the Galilean satellites, Europa is a frozen world but the tidal pull of the massive planet Jupiter is sufficient to impart enough heat to make liquid water exist below the surface. In fact, Europa has a significant subterranean ocean in which life could exist. It was during the attempt to find life that two men died. Otto has to find the reason for the deaths but there is also an attractive woman standing in the way. A really good story and a delight to listen to, it takes you more than 400,000,000 miles to another world.

Finally, ‘The Ice Owl’ by Carolyn Ives Gilman, an excellent story which is set in the author’s ‘20 Planet’ universe, one explored in previous fiction, where a young woman, Thorn, and her mother, Maya, continue their way drifting in a somewhat hippyish manner. This time, they end up on a planet where the main city is called Glory To God. Why anyone would want to go there is another matter but Thorn’s education is disrupted by a fundamentalist revolt. Could be we have seen something like this on our own planet? Anyway, it’s a cracking story and one you’ll remember.

What could be better than sitting down in a relaxed and contented mood, listing to stories that take your mind away to other planets in the universe. A great package, which will be welcomed at any time of the year, Christmas notwithstanding, it must be heartily recommended to all readers and listeners out there.

Rod MacDonald

(pub: Infinivox/Audiotexttapes. 12 CDs 14 hours. Price: $39.99 inc p&p (US) direct from them. ISBN: 978-1-884612-17-6. Ebook: $ 5.99 (US))
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