Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
June 2006

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2005, $6.99

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2005, $6.99

Specials by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2006, $15.95

Tally Youngblood is about to turn sixteen, and she's ugly. But then, everyone her age is ugly—they're even known as "uglies." In her world, children have an operation at age sixteen which turns them pretty—extensive, custom-designed plastic surgery which removes all traces of imperfection. Tally hates being ugly, and has been eagerly anticipating her operation for most of her young life.

But not everyone is so keen on turning pretty. While out late one night performing a prank, Tally meets a girl named Shay who's not so keen on the idea. Not only does Shay rebel against the idea of having to conform to society's idea of what's beautiful, but she also doesn't relish the thought of the pretty lifestyle, which seems to involve non-stop partying and bubbleheaded nonsense.

This seems like crazy talk to Tally, who can't wait to turn pretty so she can reunite with her friend Peris, who turned pretty ahead of her. Besides, it's the law; there's nothing Tally or Shay can do about it. Or so Tally thinks, until Shay tells her of a place far away from the city known as The Smoke, where uglies can flee to escape turning pretty. Although Tally doesn't like the idea of running away, she and Shay have become fast friends, so she is sorely tempted. In the end, she decides to stay and go through with her operation, but Shay leaves her some coded directions to finding The Smoke—coded to prevent the authorities from finding the place should the note fall into the wrong hands—should she change her mind.

So on the eve of their shared birthday, Shay heads off for The Smoke. Tally stays behind, and though she misses Shay and wishes they could have stayed together, she takes solace in the fact that she'll soon be pretty.

But all does not go as planned. When Tally boards the transport which is to take her to surgery, she is instead taken to the headquarters of the authorities, which are known as "Special Circumstances." But Special Circumstances are no mere keepers of law and order—they're an entirely different breed of perfection. Sometimes described as "cruel pretties," the so-called "specials" have beautiful, if severe, features, along with super-enhanced musculature and reflexes, along with some razor-sharp teeth to intimidate their enemies. The head of Special Circumstances, one Dr. Cable, interrogates Tally about The Smoke and, displeased with her lack of cooperation makes Tally an offer she can't refuse: she either agrees to help Special Circumstances find The Smoke by infiltrating it as a spy, or she'll stay ugly forever.

Seeing herself with little choice, Tally heads off toward The Smoke, with nothing more than Shay's cryptic directions to guide her. But once she arrives—after a long and arduous adventure—and meets some of the people, and learns what it is to live off the land like the Smokies do, Tally questions whether or not she can go through with her betrayal.

I don't want to synopsize too much more, lest I spoil the fun for you readers, but suffice to say if you think the above sounds cool, then you're going to love all three of these books, just as I did. And if you think that's cool, well, I didn't even mention the explosions, the hoverboards, and all the other cool technological gizmos that Westerfeld comes up with. And did I mention the explosions?

Westerfeld excels at creating complex and life-like characters, then taking them and throwing them into one incredible circumstance after another. Tally Youngblood is one of the most conflicted and well-developed protagonists I've seen, and the reader cannot help but empathize with her and come to truly care about what happens to her. One of the interesting things about Tally is that she does some things that could easily have made her a totally unlikable character, but in Westerfeld's expert hands, she's anything but ugly.

As superbly-drawn as the characters are, the setting is just as vivid. The trilogy is set in an indeterminate future, which has been rebuilt after an apocalypse of an unusual variety; a bacterial plague infested the world's oil supply, wreaking havoc on the world economy. A number of wars seem to have been fought as well, resulting in a large number of ruins and very little recognizable civilization as we know it. Though the trilogy takes place in the United States, there is little to nothing resembling the US we know today; instead of united states, there are a number of non-affiliated city-states, and as the trilogy progresses, we learn that not all of the city-states are as oppressive as where Tally comes from. All this makes for a very fully-realized world, one that I might not necessarily want to live in, but sure enjoy visiting.

One of the things about reading the first book of a trilogy, and knowing that it's the first book of a trilogy, is that you can expect certain things. With the second and third books of this trilogy, being titled Pretties and Specials, for instance, one cannot help but wonder how in the world those titles will fit. As you're reading, you'd think: Tally's an ugly, and she would never turn pretty, but even if she did, she would never turn into a special, and how could that even happen? Suffice to say, Tally does turn into a pretty, and does eventually turn into a special, but knowing that will not take away any of the fun and excitement out of reading these books. You'd know as much if you even glanced at the cover copy of books two and three, and could even guess from the titles. The question, of course, is how. The great thing about Westerfeld is that he constantly keeps the reader guessing, and even when he pulls out one pleasant surprise after another, they always make sense, and never feel like cheats.

Once you're in the middle of Uglies, you'll get to know what pretties and specials are like, so by the time you're done with it, you can't help but be full of anticipation to see how Westerfeld manages the next one—how can he possibly pull off a whole novel with Tally as one of those bubbleheaded pretties? And how in the world can Tally become one of those vicious specials? Finding out is both unexpected and delightful. And there's enough of gosh-wow sense of wonder here to satisfy a series many times its length. This reader's only disappointment with the series was that it had to come to an end.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, Read by Todd McLaren
Tantor Media, 2005, 17.5 hours (Unabridged)
MP3-CD: $25.99, Audio CD: $44.99, Audible.com: $18.19

Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan, Read by Todd McLaren
Tantor Media, 2005, 16.5 hours (Unabridged)
MP3-CD: $25.99, Audio CD: $44.99, Audible.com: $18.19

Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan, Read by Simon Vance
Tantor Media, 2005, 16 hours (Unabridged)
MP3-CD: $25.99, Audio CD: $44.99, Audible.com: $18.19

Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan, Read by William Dufris
Tantor Media, 2006, 22 hours (Unabridged)
MP3-CD: $34.99, Audio CD: $44.99, Audible.com: $24.49

Richard K. Morgan burst onto the scene in 2003 with his brutal debut novel, Altered Carbon, which went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award. He's since published a number of other fine novels, including Carbon sequels Broken Angels and Woken Furies, and standalone satirical SF novel Market Forces. In 2005, Tantor Media began adapting Morgan's work onto audio, with mostly good results.

In Altered Carbon, Kovacs, a highly-trained mercenary (an "ex-Envoy"—sort of like Army Special Forces to the Nth degree), is brought to Earth to investigate the apparent suicide of one Laurens Bancroft...by Bancroft himself. You see, in Morgan's 25th century, all humans (well, except Catholics) are implanted with a device known as a "cortical stack," which interfaces with the brain to store all one's memories upon it, so when one dies, one can be "resleeved" into a new body, provided the stack is intact. Bancroft's stack was, in fact, obliterated, but he survives his "suicide" only because, being incredibly wealthy, he had a secondary backup—remote storage. However, since his "offsite" backup wasn't updated non-stop, there's a gap in his memory, so he doesn't know who killed him. So it's up to Kovacs to find out. This setup results in a Blade Runner-esque neo-noir (but with lots more sex and violence). In Broken Angels, Morgan (and Kovacs) change gears (and Kovacs changes bodies); whereas Altered Carbon had Kovacs playing detective, Angels has him playing soldier and alien archeologist, in pursuit of a Martian relic—a working faster-than-light starship. Much violence and mayhem ensues.

Narrator Todd McLaren reads in a rich, resonant baritone with just the right amount of noir in his voice to match that of Morgan's prose. One could very easily go over the top in trying to emulate the noir stylings of old films and radio programs, so McLaren's restraint is both wise and appreciated. McLaren is extremely skilled with dialogue, and even makes some shouted conversations sound verisimilar without being overloud and annoying. He does an equally nice job with his accents, especially the Latina enunciations of Lt. Ortega. The only slight flaw in McLaren's repertoire is that his "S" pronunciations are at times slightly too sibilant. But given his otherwise superlative performance, it's easy enough to accept (and dismiss) this as a stylistic quirk.

The novels themselves are as good as McLaren's narration, so you've got solid five-star writing to go along with a top-notch vocal performance. Carbon is the better of the two, and is really the only essential Kovacs novel (it wraps up nicely enough that reading the sequels isn't necessary). Which is not to say that Angels doesn't deliver the good—it does, but it doesn't quite live up to its predecessor. Kovacs himself is one of the darkest and most unrepentant (yet somehow likeable) heroes in recent memory, and the strength of this character really drives the series.

Though McLaren is superb, it seems like a missed opportunity to have not switched narrators, just as Kovacs switches bodies. Normally, it's a good thing to keep a winning team together, but with the Kovacs books, it seems like it would have made more sense to resleeve.

The latest (and supposedly final) Kovacs book, Woken Furies, debuted on audio in May, and with the new novel comes a new narrator, William Dufris. Dufris is a veteran voiceover actor, having provided the vocal talent for a number of animated series over the years, including that of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman. For the past couple years, he's been narrating audiobooks, first with Paperback Digital (which seems to have since abandoned audiobooks in favor of publishing ebooks), and now with Tantor Media. I've heard Dufris narrate before, and I've always been pleased with his past performances. Many others have agreed: he's been nominated for several Audie Awards, and AudioFile Magazine named him one of "The Best Voices at The End of the Century." He typically doesn't fall into the trap of making his characters sound like cartoons that a lot of animation voiceover veterans fall into. So while I briefly lamented the loss of McLaren, I was happy with his replacement, and was glad to see that Tantor had resleeved its narrator at last.

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for.

Before listening to Altered Carbon on audio, I'd never been much impressed with Tantor's audio efforts. I'd listened to a few of their other titles and was consistently disappointed. When I initially heard that Tantor had acquired the audio rights to Morgan's books, I inwardly groaned, but I looked forward to re-reading them, so I anticipated to the audio release nonetheless, albeit with a sizeable dollop of trepidation. So when I first listened to Altered Carbon, I was surprised and delighted, and thought that I could now expect a higher level of quality out of Tantor's future titles. But if the first three Richard K. Morgan audiobooks were five steps forward for Tantor, Woken Furies seems like six steps back.

First, the novel in brief: in Woken Furies, Kovacs returns to his home planet of Harlan's World, only to find himself mixed up in the affairs of a woman named Sylvie Oshima, who might just be carrying around the consciousness of revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer inside her cortical stack. Kovacs being Kovacs, he quickly pisses off the local crime syndicates and has a hired killer out there gunning for him. But Kovacs is a hard man to kill...even when the man hunting him is himself. That's right—an old copy of his personality, kept on stack by the Envoy corps, is dredged up out of storage, loaded into a fresh sleeve, and tasked with finding and killing his older self.

For my money, Woken Furies is, while still enjoyable, by far the weakest entry in the Kovacs series; it seemed overlong, it's plot was not as compelling to me as those of the previous two novels, and it included a few too many gratuitous porn-like sex scenes, which had me skimming (when I read the book in dead-tree) rather than titillated.

When listening to the audiobook, of course, I did not have the luxury of skimming, and narrating a sex scene, especially a practically pornographic sex scene, is not something every narrator can do well. Dufris, alas, is one of those that can't, and listening to him try just makes you want to turn off the audiobook and go take a shower—not because it made you hot, but because it made you feel dirty.

But that's almost the least of the audio production's worries, for it starts making mistakes right from the very beginning. The novel beings with a lengthy italicized passage, and Tantor (and/or Dufris) for some reason decided to employ an echo chamber-effect to indicate the italics. This not only makes no sense (though one assumes they were going for that whole blurred-lens flashback effect some cheesy films use), but it makes the narrative very hard to follow, resulting in immediate frustration.

As annoying as that was, it was a stylistic/creative decision, and so while I might not agree with it, it cannot be considered flat out wrong. What can be considered flat out wrong, however, is Dufris' pronunciation of the protagonist's name. That's right, he mispronounces the name of the protagonist. Now, I don't expect a narrator to fact-check every single word used in an audiobook, and I've heard voice actors mispronounce words in other recordings, but at the very least, you'd think he'd find out how to say the protagonist's name. The funny thing is that this all clearly boils down to lack of communication. Someone at Tantor surely knew how it was pronounced (or perhaps McLaren is the only one?) since Altered Carbon and Broken Angels have the correct pronunciation. (For the record, it's Ko-vach, not Ko-vacks, as Dufris says.) This might not be such an issue, if the correct pronunciation were not provided in the text of the novels. True, it's not mentioned in Woken Furies, but it is mentioned in Altered Carbon, so there clearly is a correct way to pronounce the name. And, by the way, it annoys Kovacs when people mispronounce it. Which makes it all the more comical to hear Dufris mispronounce it again and again, especially when narrating the bits in which Kovacs refers to himself in the third person...thus, in essence, mispronouncing his own name.

I could go on and on; this production was just a mess from start to finish. Though I recommend the novel to fans of the Kovacs series, I cannot in good conscience recommend the audiobook. And though I usually reserve this space to point out good stuff to read, the cost of audiobooks is high enough that I feel like I need to warn you away from this one.

And so now to introduce Chris Faulkner. Did I mention that Morgan excels at writing dark and unrepentant heroes?

Now that we're done discussing the Kovacs novels, it's time to talk about Morgan's best novel, Market Forces, which is not only Morgan's best, it's one of the best novels I've ever read, period. It's satirical near-future SF in which big-time corporations have given up mergers and acquisitions in favor of conflict investment, which is essentially investing in and providing the financial backing for warring factions, and, of course, making the most money off of the bloodshed as possible. But the thirst for blood isn't kept out of the boardrooms; to move up in the company, one must not simply outperform one's bosses—one must challenge them to gladiatorial-style car duels. The novel is also full of immensely hateable loathsome corporate scum, and has, as its protagonist, a conflicted man who is himself loathsome corporate scum. Market Forces is brutal, darkly funny, action-packed, and full of sharply-biting satire. And did I mention brutal?

British actor Simon Vance is an established star of audiobook narration, being a perennial Audie Award finalist, and having won his first Audie Award for this recording of Market Forces. He reads in a pleasant and sonorous British dialect, which ideally suits the characters and the story (being, as it is, set in the UK). Like McLaren, one of the many areas of voice-acting in which Vance excels is in giving life to dialogue. All of the conversations he portrays sound like real life conversations, in the way the characters' voices change pitch and tempo when speaking, depending on their mood and/or level of excitement. All-in-all, a terrific audio adaptation; if only all books were translated this well.

This is seriously one of those don't walk, run! to the bookstore type books. And since the audio production is so good, it's well-worth it to read the dead-tree edition first (which, if you're like me, you'll devour in a single sitting), then get the audiobook so you can re-read the book at your leisure, perhaps during that otherwise mind-numbing commute home from the office (where you might be in the unfortunate position of working with loathsome corporate scum). But while listening, remember: resist the urge to run your coworkers off the road.

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