SF Article

Reading Science Fiction Blind

So how do you access the worlds of science fiction if you cannot see to read?
Answer: ask someone who knows.
We did and Stephen Steppens comments on what is on offer.


In mid-2002, the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) brought out a new talking book machine on digital CD format for the visually impaired. This is a great advancement in the world of talking books. It comes a long way from the days when books, SF books in particular, were at one time very hard to get on an audio format. The RNIB was and is one of the best sources in the UK to receive these books. This is an overview of the talking book format in relation to my interest in the world of science fiction.

In the commercial world, talking books are usually recorded on a standard audio-cassette format. They are usually abridged so you do not get the full flavour of the book. Often these books are superimposed with a musical background or sound effects such as you will found on the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. However, the RNIB's talking book format and some others from the United States plus different countries are full-unabridged books. This means that you read the book in its entirety!

Then you need a good reader. The RNIB has a stock of many readers usually actors who choose to work for them voluntarily. Also they have some other volunteers that read these audio books for the RNIB. The headache for most of these audio publishers such as the RNIB is copyright. A lot of authors and publishers are unwilling to give copyright to these organisations. So a sponsor has to be found such as a school or other organisation including the National Lottery Fund. The Lottery Fund has been one of the biggest contributors in giving RNIB money so they can put most of these books on the new digital CD format.

A good reader makes all the difference to a good book - such as the Dune series, which was read in the mid-90's by a gentleman called Simon Vance. He is an excellent reader and I found the books very enjoyable even though they were on the old tape format that the RNIB have used for nearly 40 years. This is the Clark & Smith audio format, which is a 6-track analogue format. Each track lasts 2 hours on a special large cassette, which fits on a platter on a large audio talking book machine: this machine was not particularly portable.

But now (2003) the new CD format that the RNIB has produced for the talking book user is a 20-hour long disk which plays on a new digital CD machine. However these CDs cannot be played on a standard digital CD player as the format is different. They use what is called the Daisy format. The Visual Aid Corporation in Canada produces the machines that the RNIB have given us. The new machines are a bit bigger than A4 paper size, a couple of inches thick and while weighty, are incredibly portable. This opens up new joys with reading. I can now take my machine and listen to books while travelling. Then while visiting family and friends or attending conventions, I can continue with my stories.

The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian Aldiss is another great book series. Simon Vance also reads these very well. I always enjoy a great audio book especially if the reader is clear, as with Helliconia, with his (or her) wording and puts a little bit of acting in. I especially like it when the books aren't abridged and I do not need extraneous music and other things over books. I like to 'read' a book in its entirety with a good reader.

In the commercial world I have found some good readers for audio books. One of the best readers in the commercial world for SF books is a man called Alexander Adams. He has read many of the new Star Wars New Order trilogies. These are read well but the unfortunate thing about them is that most of them, in fact all of them, are abridged so you do not get the complete feel of the book. However I hope in the future, as the RNIB proceeds with its digital service, that more and more SF books will be on their catalogue list.

A general overview of good audio books that I have found are: Dune, the Helliconia trilogy, the Ringworld series by Larry Niven, and certain novels including Dr Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories. There are of course many others such as the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The RNIB has produced a number of these in the unabridged format for the talking book service and most of them have been read well. One of their best readers is a gentleman called John Cartwright who reads in a clear and concise voice with an element of performance in the story. This makes it most enjoyable to listen to.

Asimov is fairly heavy going, however, and sometimes you want a lighter book such as those by Terry Patchett. Many of the Terry's books by the RNIB have been extremely well read by a radio actor called Steven Fawn. He is a very good reader and makes the Discworld come to life.

To summarise - these are some of things I like to find from a good audio book, SF or otherwise. A book that is extremely well read with a little bit of acting but not over the top. You do not want any comment from the reader about the book. You want the book in its entirety, read as it was written on the page. If a good reader does this, an audio book can be very enjoyable indeed.

Stephen Steppens

Stephen Steppens is a member of the League of the Non-Aligned SF (mainly TV media SF) group that meets on the Horseshoe Inn, Melior Street (3 minutes walk from London Bridge Station) usually on the evenings of the 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month from about 20.00 to closing time. Usually an hour of the meeting is structured with a quiz, internet vid showing etc. Normally 10 - 20 attend out of a total of 30 semi-regulars.

Concatenation regulars might like to know that Roger Robinson (formerly of the 1980s BECCON team with which some of us in Concat were associated) has raised funds to sponsor RNIB talking books. A small number of members of the BECCON team, including Roger, more into SF books, still meet for a drink and chat most Friday evenings in central London from about 18.15 to20.00 under the guise of the City Illiterates (after the old City of London College of Literature SF course to which many used to belong) and the venue can usually be found on Dave Langford's resource page of the Ansible site. Normally about 6 attend out of a total of a dozen semi-regulars plus any SF book personality who happens to be passing through London.

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