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Although I am a firm believer in the potential of stories packaged in forms other than text, I have to admit that I haven't spent much time with audiobooks. This may in part be because I've never spent a great deal of time driving -- which seems to be the only time my ears are free but my hands and eyes are not -- and even when I do, I tend to prefer music or news, which can be tuned out when focusing on the road. Nonetheless, I know people who are avid fans of the medium, and I've noticed that publishers seem, in recent years, to be making more of an effort to release minimally abridged or unabridged audiobooks close to the regular print release of their titles. (Or, at the very least, I seem to be getting hits, with increasing regularity, for audio versions of things I'm searching for at Amazon.)

Considering this gap in my fiction diet, I was pleased to receive an invitation from Audible.com to review some of the new offerings in their speculative fiction department. But, having once accepted their offer, it struck me what a difficult review this was going to be. We've run one review of a new imprint from a publisher (Firebird, a line of young adult SF), but that was only four books. Audible is offering hundreds of titles, by authors ranging from Asimov to Zelazny. There seems to be some concentration on commercially popular current writers, as you would expect, but then there are also Best-Of collections from the pulps; classics by authors such as Verne, Huxley, and Dick; and a few items that are exclusively available at Audible.

Faced with such a smorgasbord, and with a limit on how much time I could spend (and how many free titles they would give me), I settled on a novel (Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age), the Best-Ofs for Analog and Asimov's, a fantasy collection (Legends volume 3, featuring Terry Goodkind, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Tad Williams), the Audible exclusive science fiction collection (featuring Robert Silverberg, Hal Clement, and Sean Williams), and an episode from a series of dramatically adapted novellas called 2000x (Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman).

Before I could start listening, I had to overcome a few technological hurdles. Rather than stocking and shipping CDs or tapes, Audible cuts its costs by providing only direct downloads, which are managed by special software (presumably to help prevent piracy). To make it easier for new users to listen to audio files while on the go, Audible is currently giving away a co-branded MP3 player, called the Otis. It took me a few tries to convince my computer (which is, I suppose, getting somewhat dated, considering it's still running Windows 98) that it wanted to communicate with the Otis's USB port, but once I did, things went swimmingly; I swapped the Otis's included earbuds for a nice pair of headphones, and settled in to listen.

[get a free MP3 player]

As far as the basic technology goes, everything works just as advertised. The Audible software took care of my downloads (though it took the better part of an afternoon to get The Diamond Age, and this was over a broadband connection -- if you're a modem user, you probably shouldn't try to get long novels this way), and transferred files onto my brand new MP3 player. The Otis delivers sound that is easily as good as any walkman I've owned, can be easily paused or back-scanned if you're interrupted or distracted, saves your place when you turn it off, and even allows some basic "bookmarking" of points in the files.

The voices in the works I sampled were all at least adequate to the task at hand, and in a few cases were excellent. The reader for The Diamond Age -- which runs upwards of eighteen hours, so I listened to her for a long time -- is, unfortunately, alright, but not great. Her diction and pacing are fine, but her occasional attempts at accents fall flat, and her attempts to deepen her tone for male voices fall flat. In contrast, the vocal flexibility of the reader of Robert Silverberg's "With Caesar in the Underworld," in the Asimov's Best-Of, is quite impressive. I would not have needed the textual cues describing who said what in order to distinguish the voices of the characters.

The best of the lot, however, was the title from 2000x. "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman features Ellison himself narrating, and none other than Robin Williams in the title role. Other entries in the series adapt works by Le Guin, Heinlein, Twain, Kipling, Hubbard, and more; Richard Dreyfuss appears in one, and a few other less recognizable, but talented, actors appear in others. Although episodes in the 2000x series are not as good a deal as the free Seeing Ear Theater productions (which include Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples," by far the best audiodrama I've encountered), at $4 to $5 each, they are still a steal.

One count against Audible is the difficulty of navigating their website. Its heavy dependence on JavaScript is a nuisance, and breaks browser functionality like the "open in new window" feature, which I often use to quickly compare multiple results from a search, or to hold onto an item I've found while browsing, so I can decide later whether I actually want to buy it. I have even seen some problems with the basic "back button" creating unexpected results.

A more important one is the cost of many of the titles. The unabridged version of The Diamond Age, priced over $30, costs more than I'd expect to pay for a hardback, and the various collections cost $10 to $20. If you're a frequent listener, you can join Audible's premium subscription service for $20, and get a couple free audiobooks per month, effectively reducing the cost of every item to $10, the cost of a thick paperback.

I don't know whether Audible's model for selling audiobooks will succeed in converting new listeners. While I enjoyed my brief foray into the medium, I have to say I was just as happy to switch back to text. Still, if I ever find myself with a long commute, I may seriously consider going back for more. If you have an affinity for audio, and for SF, it's definitely worth a look.

 

Copyright © 2003 R Michael Harman

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R Michael Harman is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.



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