Friction

I don’t like audio books. I guess that I’m a bit prejudiced against them because the only people I have actually seen listening to these things were a bit on the stupid side. Worse than the people who “don’t do books” at all, and worse than the “if it’s any good they are gonna make it into a movie anyway” crowd. These folks tend to be semi-literate but just lazy and anti-intellectual. The audio-book consumers on the other hand seem to be the folks who do want to read the books but find the actual process to be an insurmountable barrier and thus they would rather listen to someone read for them.

That said, I do see some value in the whole book on tape concept. There are certain scenarios in which you simply can’t (or should not attempt to) read – like driving for example. Or doing tedious manual labor, painting Warhammer miniatures, painting your house, mowing your lawn, doing surgery or being blind. All these activities sort of monopolize the use of your eyes. But if you have an audio version of a good book, you could still listen to it while doing any of these things.

And of course there is that whole thing about different people acquiring knowledge in different ways. I’m a hopeless introvert so for me hiding away from the whole world with a good book is a great way to spend an afternoon. Perhaps those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum (super extroverts) enjoy listening more than reading because it at some level mimics human interaction. Then again, I wouldn’t know.

Either way, my opinion is that when you listen to a book on tape you are getting the inferior experience. For one, reading is faster. You can digest the information on the page at a fraction of the time it takes an actor to read it because you don’t actually have to pause after every sentence. You can also skim around, or flip back few pages to look up some detail you might have missed of glossed over.

Secondly, listening seems less personal and intimate to me. When you listen to a pre-recorded reading you basically get that readers interpretation of the overall tone of the book or the voice mannerisms they attribute to certain characters. So the whole thing is pre-biased for your convenience – the reader puts little bit of himself into the text. That may sometimes be a good thing, but I prefer to make my own opinions about the narrator and the characters.

But that’s me – I’m a reader. So keep that in mind when I give you this next link. I found this story by randomly browsing Reddit and since I couldn’t find a text version freely available online I listened to it in a podcast format. All of my above complaints still stand, but I thought it was a good story and I wanted to share it, but I couldn’t find a text version freely available anywhere. So I’m linking to the audio format instead.

The story is Friction by Will McIntosh and you can hear it read by Stephen Eley as part of the Escape Pod podcast.

We had the Science Fiction vs Fantasy debate just last week, and this is a great example of a work that escapes this classification. You could easily categorize it as either one or the other. The story takes place on an some distant world that lies beyond human sphere of influence. It could be an alien planet, or perhaps a fantastic parallel universe located in that non-descript plane of reality where fantasy universes live. It doesn’t really matter though. The point is that there are no humans there. They are not even mentioned. The whole piece is written from the perspective of the alien inhabitants of a distant world who are sufficiently different from us to be interesting, but similar enough to be relateable.

I’m pretty sure the story is not for everyone. It is not action packed or fast paced. It is actually rather slow and contemplative – but at the same time moving and hauntingly beautiful in it’s exotic imagery. This is short fiction at it’s finest: handful of characters, interesting setting, clever idea, few rather moving moments and interesting message all told in a succinct and direct manner but without skimming on details.

I don’t really want to talk about it to much because it would give things away, so instead I will reproduce the short excerpt which hooked me onto this story. I read this paragraph on the Escape Pod website and I immediately decided I must read or in worst case scenario listen to this story:

Gruen was on the sixty-first master, and while his wisdom had grown steadily, he had worn very little. He was incredibly well-preserved–the palms of his three-fingered hands still sported the deep, swirling ridges that had worn to nothing in most people before they’d lived thirty years. Indeed, all of the myriad folds and ridges in his thick maroon skin were for the most part intact. His eyes were still housed in tight sockets, surrounded by thickly-ridged cheeks. Besides the feet, the eyes were the greatest point of weakness for those who aspired to read the works of the masters. Ceaseless up-and-down eye movement caused the sockets to wear out, and eventually the reader’s eyes fell out. At that point they were forced to trace the carved words with their fingers. Friction quickly took its toll on the hands; readers rarely made it through one master’s teachings this way before their hands were ground to the wrist, and they were finished.

Give it a listen. It is about 20-30 minute podcast with some random padding at the begging and the end. Let me know what you think. Did you enjoy the story? Also, is this Science Fiction or is this Fantasy? Personally I would place it squarely the SF bucket but then again I think you could make a valid argument for calling it Fantasy.

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4 Responses to Friction

  1. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Spoilers ahead, you have been warned. Sorry if the names are spelt wrong or a little off, but that’s audio books for you :).

    Good story, if a little predictable. It was obvious Western’s comments about the sand would be much wiser than what Gruen makes of them at the time. The words are lost on Gruen’s relatively young and arrogant mind but years of reflection give them new light. Classic enlightenment story. Other than that, Gruen’s specie is quite interesting : it’s hard to imagine having your life limited by movements and not time. As much as I hate putting labels on things, I’d classify it as SF, mainly because I’ve seen this theme handled more often in SF than in Fantasy.

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  2. John J. Joex UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I prefer reading over listening myself, but I have become an audio book hound of late simply because I do not have the time to sit down and read these days, but I do have a fairly lengthy commute. So I have turned that time into book listening time and I have caught up (and sometimes revisted) any of a number of science fiction classics over the last couple of years. I highly recommend this to anybody out there that spends a fair amount of time commuting to and from work.

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  3. James UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    I quite like the story, and have been a fan of Escape Pod for some time.

    But I am not commenting to leave a bit of mindless agreement, but to say that I found your point on audio books interesting. Until I moved to Los Angeles (where I spend at least an hour a day, sometimes two or three, in the car), I was firmly in the “audio books are for people who are too dumb or lazy to actually read a book” camp. It’s taken those long hours in the car every day for me to come around.

    I agree completely that audio books provide an inferior experience. Even with the best of readers, it won’t sound as good as it would in my head. It’s somebody else’s interpretation of the material being forced on the listener. But I’ve found them to be an excellent way to get to content that I’m interested in but know I’d never get around to otherwise. I’ve been interested in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games for months, but I’ve got dozens of unread books already vying for my attention, and (though I don’t mean this to sound dismissive), a young adult novel will probably never trump an unread John Irving or Ray Bradbury or Michael Chabon book.

    So I listen to the audio book, and it’s been a good system so far. Actual reading is my starting lineup, and audio books are my second string–not as good, but there in a pinch, when I need them.

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  4. Adrian BELGIUM Google Chrome Windows says:

    I tried listening to an audiobook once but I just couldn’t. It took way too long and I kept missing things because I kept losing focus due to doing other things.

    Having a story told by a friend face-to-face is no problem, on the contrary. But listening to some random voice hours at a time..

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