RADIANCE – Carter Scholz (2002)

Radiance Scholz

Carter Scholz isn’t a prolific writer. He published a grim, realistic novella about an interstellar spaceship, Gypsy, in 2015 – one of my favorite SF reads. There’s a handful of other short fiction, and only 2 novels: 1984’s Palimpsests and this one, Radiance – an overlooked masterpiece.

Scholz doesn’t write to earn the butter on his bread, and that shows. Unlike so many authors who just churn out stuff that needs to please fandom and sales figures, he does what he wants. That results in singular fiction, and Radiance is a remarkable, brilliant, demanding novel.

Not science fiction in the speculative sense, it is a novel about science. Also the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ needs a caveat: important parts of Radiance are based in reality. It is a roman à clef set in a government lab in California, a veiled ,

centering on two nuclear physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War & start of the Dotcom Bubble, nuclear bombs & Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks, accelerationism, and the great scientific project of mankind. (quoted from Gwern’s impressive site on Radiance, that includes a free, annotated e-book edition)

I don’t normally do this, but I want to start with 2 pictures of the blurbs, because I feel they are not just the usual hyperbole taken out of context by the publisher, but really do the book justice, and, taken together, capture its spirit.

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THE GODS THEMSELVES – Isaac Asimov (1972)

The Gods ThemselvesFrom 1958 tot 1972 Asimov did not write science fiction, so The Gods Themselves was a sort of comeback, and it went on to win the Hugo, Locus & Nebula. It’s heralded as “His single finest creation” by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In 1982 Asimov himself expressed this to be his favorite science fiction novel. High praise all around.

A story in three very different parts, it is set in 2100, and deals with a possible unbalancing of the cosmos because of the Electron Pump – new technology that delivers clean, abundant energy. This unbalance might obliterate Earth.

The first part deals with the science behind it, and with the social problems inherent in doing science: it is a critique of ego before truth, and the petty competition between men. The second part deals with aliens – the first time ever Asimov wrote about aliens – in a parallel universe, aliens that are responsible for the Electron Pump. The third part is set on the moon, and is about scheming to resolve the problem.

It is a visibly constructed story: Ken MacLeod even speaks of “dialectics” in the pompous introduction to my 2012 edition, and indeed, as a construction it certainly has a charm, and Asimov’s craft is undeniable. Yet at the same time it sucks a bit of life out of it too. Wooden characters obviously don’t help that, especially not as most of the story is told through dialogue.

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UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Ubik (Peter Rauch)When I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 5 years ago, I approached it the wrong way. That novel is full of plot holes & other inconsistencies, and while I appreciated the mood, I ended up being bothered by its mushy core. I decided to not make the same mistake for Ubik, and see if a go-with-the-flow attitude would yield another reading experience.

Being who I am, I still ended up writing down numerous inconsistencies, but indeed, they did not really bother me. Maybe that is because Ubik simply is a much better novel, I don’t know: I’d have to reread Androids, and that’s not going to happen.

A bit before I started Ubik, I read a review on Calmgrove that determined my reading experience this time. It hinted at Serious Levels of Depth, and that provided the novel with lots of my credit upfront. It made me go down another rabbit hole this time: in search for truths about life & death.

For the uninitiated: Ubik is a strange novel, in which Dick draws back the curtain numerous times, only to close it a bit later on. It involves time travel – or not?, strange temporal digressions, merged states of half-life, a conflict between two psychic mutant factions, a trip to the moon and capitalist consumerism satire. An American-made Kafka: light in calories, and with a dose of cigarettes, X-Men & half-baked religion.

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THE WILD SHORE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

The Wild Shore

“You can’t teach what the world has taught you.”

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book is set for release in October this year. It’s again a climate change book, and I’m looking forward to it, even though I didn’t finish his latest, 2019’s Red Moon – I felt that was too formulaic. I’m hoping The Ministry will find somewhat of a new elan – even though KSR will always be KSR, and his debut novel The Wild Shore, is proof of that.

I guess most readers know this is part of a triptych, in which Robinson envisions three different futures for California’s Orange County, where Stan grew up. The Wild Shore is set after a nuclear war, The Gold Coast deals with rampant greed & growth, and Pacific Edge paints a utopia.

I have written lengthy analyses of Robinson before, most notably of Green Earth and New York 2140, so forgive me for keeping things a bit shorter this time – even though the small canvas of The Wild Shore is vastly superior to the shiny blitz of NY2140.

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REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

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EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

ExhalationI was conflicted about Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s much lauded first collection. There’s something about this guy: he can write – but are these really, truly stories?

So at first I decided to skip Exhalation: Stories, his second collection, published in 2019. But then I read a glowing review on Speculiction that dubbed the title story “one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written”. It also won three major awards: the Hugo, Locus and BSFA. As it is available for free on Lightspeed Magazine’s site, I decided to read just that.

It turned out to be a typical Chiang story: exquisitely crafted, good prose, convincing atmosphere, smart ideas. But sadly, for my taste, it’s also a bit too didactic, for two reasons.

It tries to convey a message – the clichéd ‘be thankful for the wonder of existence’, but more importantly, because it follows the typical Chiang template: he read some interesting stuff, and tries to mold his newfound wisdom into a story. Continue reading

THE MAN IN THE MAZE – Robert Silverberg (1969)

The Man In The MazeRobert Silverberg’s bibliography is massive. The guy wrote tons of stuff. In 1968, the year he published The Man in the Maze serialized in Worlds Of If, Silverberg released three other novels, 8 books of non-fiction and 8 short stories, according to this glowing review on Fantasy Literature. Ah, quality and quantity.

Then again, this novel is just 192 pages in a pocket edition – the good old days of brevity. Today, a story like this would be published as a novel of at least 492 pages, adding lots and lots of world building and an attempt at deep backstory for the characters. In other words: authors and publishers alike would try to give it the veneer of serious literature. The wonders of word-processing indeed – it only makes the length and depth of Dune or LOTR all the more impressive.

So, what we get in The Man in the Maze is ideas condensed to their basic form, draped in a fast paced action/mystery story to make the medicine go down. It’s snappy pulp, yes, but it has deep ambitions – or does it?

I was drawn to read more of Silverberg since I read his classic Dying Inside, a fantastic fuck off to intellectual snobbery, that even today is mistaken as serious literature with metaphors about dying. His tone just felt right.

What about The Man in the Maze?

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HOW HISTORY GETS THINGS WRONG – Alex Rosenberg (2018)

How History Gets Things WrongDarwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology – a book Alex Rosenberg published in 2006 – was one of the best books I read in 2019. It tries to marry physics & chemistry with biology, and successfully so. It’s a very dense text, and extremely interesting.

So when I learned Rosenberg had written a book about our addiction to stories, I couldn’t resist and bought it. These 291 pages are a very different read than Darwinian Reductionism: a whole lot more accessible, written for a somewhat larger audience – although this is still no pop science book. While not without problems, it is very much worth your time if you have a serious, academic interest in human behavior, theory of mind, and narrative – Rosenberg’s scope is both broad and deep.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories biggest shortcoming is its title. It’s great from a marketing point of view, but it is a bit misleading. Yes, history features, as do stories, but in the end, they are a sideshow. Rosenberg uses the fallacies of narrative history to frame his central argument, which is a refutation of the most commonly held (folk) ‘theory of mind‘. He does so mainly with recent findings from neuroscience. Let me quote Wikipedia to give you an idea of Rosenberg’s basic line of reasoning:

This work develops the eliminative materialism of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, applying it to the role ‘the theory of mind’ plays in history and other forms of story telling. Rosenberg argues that the work of Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser reveals that the “theory of mind” employed in every day life and narrative history has no basis in the organization of the brain. Evidence from evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, medical diagnosis and neural imaging reveals it is an innate or almost innate tool that arose in Hominini evolution to foster collaboration among small numbers of individuals in immediate contact over the near future, but whose predictive weakness beyond this domain reveals its explanatory emptiness.

It has been over a decade since I read something truly substantial on the neurological working of our brain, and I was surprised by the detail in the discoveries of Kandel, O’Keefe and the Mosers. Their findings about the nature of brains – ‘place cells’, ‘grid cells’ and especially the functioning of ‘sharp wave ripples‘ in how decisions happen – strengthen a materialistic, reductionist viewpoint of behavior. The chapter in which Rosenberg describes the research is truly fantastic, eye-opening and worth the prize of the book alone – but I’m sure there are other good texts about that if you only want to read about that subject. In 2000 and 2014 the research was awarded a Nobel Prize, so this is not some obscure theory – as such, it might be old news to some, but it was not to me.

It’s refreshing to read a whole lot more than the typical stuff on the experiments of Benjamin Libet and John-Dylan Haynes on the fact that our brains make decisions before our consciousness registers it – a staple in popular texts on free will and similar subjects. Mind you, this is not a book on the non-existence of free will. Rosenberg says that free will doesn’t require consciousness, indicating he sees the term a bit differently than most. Although the book doesn’t deal with it explicitly, there is a lot between the lines.

It’s also of note that the book deals extensively with representation, as a big part of Rosenberg’s argument hinges on the fact that there are no representations of desires or beliefs to be found in our brains. These play a crucial role in how we generally perceive how humans act: we do stuff because we desire something and we act on those desires based on certain beliefs about how to attain them. We think somehow representations of these beliefs and desires are found in our brains, and that our brains somehow process these desires and beliefs, and make decisions based on that. Not so, it turns out.

One more remark before the jump, a crucial one. Neural circuits in the brain do not have content or represent something indeed, but it is obvious that their material output (our speech, our writing, to a certain extent maybe our conscious thoughts as well, …) does. The brain lacks content, sure, but it forms content. I would think that you cannot treat the brain as a closed system, and that we need to take its extensions so to say into account as well.

I’m not sure what this means for Rosenberg’s overall theory. Maybe it is not much more than a matter of sharper definitions. Rosenberg talks about cell circuitry that does not ‘represent’ or ‘interpret’ etc. – but again, what about their output? Is that part of the brain as well? Or part of its representation/interpretation/aboutness?

Or maybe his main beef shouldn’t be with narrative history and the folk theory of mind that puts computation of representations in the brain, but narrative history and the folk theory of mind that presupposes rational, non-causally determined agency of human actors. The neuroscience and other points raises could easily support that. Or maybe it doesn’t have an effect on his logic at all.

In the rest of the review, I’ll talk a wee bit about the book’s most important formal problem, and end with a list of a few of the nuggets of wisdom I found.

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SCHILD’S LADDER – Greg Egan (2002)

Schild's LadderI have to say I didn’t think Australia’s Greg Egan to be an important science fiction author – I have seen a few mentions of his 1992 novel Permutation City in a few lists over the years, but that’s about it. He got a Hugo for a novella, but overall he’s not a prize winner, and there doesn’t seem to be a big buzz when a new title of his appears.

But all those parameters are social stuff, and Egan is “famously reclusive”. This excerpt from his website paints his character a bit: “I do not approve of the practice of using quotes from authors on book jackets, since I believe it blurs the distinction between advertising copy writing and reviewing. I’ve never provided such quotes myself, or sought them for my own books. However, because I neglected to tell my new editor at Gollancz how I felt about this, the UK editions of Schild’s Ladder have some comments by Stephen Baxter on the jacket, alongside the excerpts from bona fide reviews of previous books. This glitch was my fault entirely, of course, and I’ll do my best to ensure that nothing similar happens again.”

I like that. Egan seems to be rigorous, a man of principle, and he doesn’t care for commercialism – he also doesn’t attend conventions or sign books, for instance. But enough about the social: what about the writing itself?

In that regard, it’s also no surprise Egan isn’t really popular: he writes very dense, hard theoretical science fiction. Harder than Seveneves, to give you a benchmark. Much, much harder than Kim Stanley Robinson. Even Blindsight was a walk in the park compared to this. That’s also because Egan’s writing generally focuses on the hardest of hard science: mathematics and quantum theory. Other themes include the nature of consciousness, “genetics, simulated reality, posthumanism, mind transfer, sexuality, artificial intelligence, and the superiority of rational naturalism over religion.”

I have to say, based on reading Schild’s Ladder: Holy Moly, Egan is one of today’s most important writers of speculative literature, and those who like their stuff only light and fluffy are missing out big time. This is highly stimulating stuff. When I was 150 pages in, I went on a quarantine shopping spree and ordered 5 other of his books.

I used to think the Culture of Iain M. Banks represented the creative pinnacle of imagining a transhumanist future, but consider that position revised: it seems Egan has picked up the baton a long time ago.

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DUNE MESSIAH – Frank Herbert (1969)

Dune MessiahI’ve always considered the Dune series the best SF I’ve ever read, but as I read it fairly early in my ventures into SF, a reread is in order. Do my past opinions still hold, years & years and books & books later?

My reread of Dune itself was a fantastic experience, and before reading this review, I politely urge you to read my 5000+ word analysis of Dune – it deals with the question of determinism & Paul Atreides as a tragic hero, among other things, and I’ll talk about those themes here too.

I remember that when I first read the sequels, I thought Dune Messiah and Children of Dune to be a lesser affair than Dune itself. I also remember feeling Herbert got into his full stride again with the final 3 installments.

We’ll see how all that holds later, but my feeling on Dune Messiah turns out to be more or less the same. I really liked it, but it’s not on the same level as Dune: 4 stars, instead of 5. It’s also of note that I liked it a bit better now than the first time around.

I’ll try to keep this text under 5000 words, so that’ll be all for the introduction. In what follows, I first compare Dune Messiah to its big brother: why exactly is it a lesser book? That part is the proper review, so to say.

Afterwards, I’ll zoom in on a few things for those interested in a deeper analysis. I’ll first write about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero. I’ll finish with a discussion on determinism & free will in Dune Messiah – even though I’m starting to feel I’m beating a dead horse on this blog, especially after my massive post on the same subject and Lord of the Rings. The last two parts will be heavy with quotes.

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SLECHT NIEUWS VOOR DOCTOR PAF DE PIERENNAAIER, PANDEMONIUM IN DE GRAUWZONE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1998)

I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died of chronic health problems due to heavy drinking in 2008 – a slow suicide. He was manic-depressive and suffered from paranoid anxiety. His books are hard to find and long OOP, but over the years I’ve managed to collect most of his work. This particular book seemed like the logical one to read right now, given the corona pandemic that’s ravaging the world. The title is a bit idiomatic, but could be translated as ‘Bad news for Dr. Poof the Worm-seamer, Pandemonium in the Grayzone’.

The rest of this post will be in Dutch, but stay tuned for a review of Dune Messiah. I hope to further explore the themes of my long analysis of Dune itself, and see how Herbert’s stance on determinism & love for tragedy evolves throughout the series. I’m not sure if that’ll be a viable strategy, I have just started my reread.


Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, pandemonium in de GrauwzoneIk heb al wat geschreven over Jean-Marie Berckmans, en ik ga proberen mezelf hier niet te herhalen. Lees dus eventueel eerst mijn eerbetoon aan de man waar ik ooit het podium mee deelde op een literaire avond in een jeugdhuis. Ik heb ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat uit 1995 gerecenseerd – met ontluisterende foto’s van diezelfde literaire avond, want het geromantiseer van Berckmans’ zogenaamde rock ‘n roll dat je hier en daar al eens tegenkomt is totaal misplaatst. Tot slot, hier nog drie alinea’s over de J.M.H. biografie van Chris Ceustermans die 10 jaar na zijn dood verscheen.

Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, Pandemonium in de Grauwzone is kort, zoals de meeste van Berckmans’ boeken – slechts 132 pagina’s. Het is wat radicaler dan Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat door zijn rechtlijnige vastberadenheid, ook al zijn de meeste thema’s grotendeels hetzelfde: angst, armoede, drinken als schild en medicijn, de stront van het leven.

De openingsscène is fantastisch – het is winter, en de Creutzfeldt-Jakob epidemie houdt huis in de Grauwzone – de nieuwe naam voor Barakstad: Berckmans’ Antwerpen rondom Café De Raaf in de Lange Lozanastraat. Het uitbreken van de dollekoeienziekte moet voor Jean-Marie een soort bevestiging zijn geweest: plots wordt de gehele wereld gedwongen om mee paranoia te zijn.

Maar al snel krijgt het boek iets monotoon. Een van de kwaliteiten van Taxi… was net de afwisseling: elk deel had een eigen karakter. Niet zo in Slecht nieuws: dat is geen afwisseling van verhalen en korte stukken en brieven zoals in zoveel van Berckmans’ andere boeken, maar een aaneenschakeling van korte teksten in dezelfde setting, met een duidelijke chronologie. Dit is een verhaal met een begin en een einde.
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BECOMING HUMAN: A THEORY OF ONTOGENY – Michael Tomasello (2019)

Becoming Human TomaselloI’m always eager for the year-end list of David Auerbach at Waggish. The man is a voracious reader in all kinds of domains. 2019’s list was dauntingly long, but I found a few titles right up my ally, one being Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny by Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. Tomasello is one of the few scientists bridging developmental research on both primates and children, and a leading figure in a branch of evolutionary psychology that was new to me: human ontogeny.

The book focuses on the question what makes humans unique. It does this by focusing on how children become adult humans, and as such part of human culture – how the development of human abilities in children differ from the development of these abilities in great apes.

Tomasello’s scope is large. He ties the development of human cognition and human sociality together, resulting in synthesizing insights about social norms & moral identity. This in not only a comparative psychology book, but an important work on ethics too. Truly a tour de force, and the first theory I’ve come across that convincingly brings cognition, evolution and ethics together – not in a normative way, but by describing the pathways of how these things arise, starting with newborn babies.

Tomasello builds on the seminal insight of Lev Vygotsky, who in the beginning of the 20th century was one of the first to articulate the fact that children need a social context to develop fully. A child that would be put onto a desert island without any social interaction would not become ‘human’ as we generally define it.

To further sketch the content, let me first quote the blurb from the publisher – Harvard.

Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

At first, I was a bit suspicious of Tomasello’s claims: I have read quite a lot of Frans de Waal and the likes, and my intellectual stance the last decade or so had been to not overestimate human uniqueness – not in language skills, not in cognition, etc. I considered differences between humans and other animals basically a matter of degree.

To a certain extent this obviously still holds, but one of the merits of Tomasello is that he uses large sets of experimental data that clearly show there are two things that are unique in humans: “shared intentionality” and “collective intentionality”. Basically, the fact that we humans do things together, know that we do things together and have elaborate insights in other humans’ mental states that influence our own mental states. So it’s not only cooperation itself that is important, but the fact that it is a form of recursive cooperation.

Language obviously is important for all of this, and so this is not only an ethics book, but one that should interest linguists too. The same goes for the cultural transmission of knowledge: instructed learning basically doesn’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, so yes, pedagogy too. Continue reading

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

The Lord Of The RingsBefore I get to the main course of this massive 7261 words review after the jump, some introductory remarks on my relationship to Tolkien first.

There will be one big problem with this review: I truly cannot assess this book on its own merits. I was 22 when the first Peter Jackson adaptation came out, and over the years I’ve seen all three movies multiple times, as well as the extended versions. Not that I consider myself a The Lord Of The Rings geek – not at all – but the movies were such a dominant cultural force back in the days, with CGI and other special effects on a scale unseen before. In an age before streaming, popping in a LOTR DVD simply was easy escapism, even if you’d seen it twice already.

I had read The Hobbit in translation when I was 14 or so, but wasn’t that impressed, and subsequently got bogged down in a Dutch translation of The Fellowship of the Ring a few months later. When the movies came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like I needed to read the books – as my friends who had read them assured me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the story, so I wasn’t curious – I mean, why read 1000 pages just to get a few scenes with Tom Bombadil or Radagast The Brown? And yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a significant coda, but it wasn’t crucial to satisfy my escapist urges.

Today, I have read the books. I even read the 894-page A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull – well, I skimmed certain parts of that, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek, but the 2014 version of 2005’s Companion was included in the edition I ended up buying. I wanted to have a hardcover edition (with the appendixes) in 3 separate bands – as I’d found that the single tome I bought first was simply not practical to read, so I send that back, and an edition with the Companion turned out to be the cheapest. As I knew I wanted to write this review, I thought it would be interesting to read up a bit on LOTR now that I had that Companion anyway. For those of you interested, I’ve included a short review of Hammond & Scull’s volume at the very end.

All the prefaces and introductions and histories of the work’s origin and quotes from letters and notes and notes and notes did enhance my reading experience. It showed that Tolkien had too much time on his hands, and invested so much in backstories of details that the entire Middle-earth mythos is a work of art so far out there it borders on the insane – the fact that A Reader’s Companion makes crystal clear again and again Tolkien was foremost preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of his creation only amplifies that.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself: I was talking about the one big problem of this review. I will do two things in the remainder of this text:

First, I’ll talk about my reading experience in relation to having seen the movies first, and try to compare the two. That might be of interest to a whole lot of new LOTR readers, as I take it most newbies will have seen the movies first, but it might also be of interest to people who read the books first, as, paradoxically, having seen the movies first also allows me to reflect on the bare bones of the story as story, regardless of medium.

After that, I’ll write a fair bit on what I wrote in my 5500 words analysis of that other monument of speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined. At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control. As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem (…).

It is my firm conviction such is also The Lord Of The Rings most basic problem, and it turns out again that authors are not always the best theoreticians about their own work: Tolkien’s writing on his own writing is a mess.

For those who might be confused by what I already wrote so far: I’m generally positive on this Monument of Fantasy. If pressed, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars as a literary accomplishment – which is excellent: 5-star reads are rare. As a work of outsider art, it’s way off the charts: 5+++ it is!

This text is the longest review I have yet written and especially the part on choice and “acts of will” is heavy with quotes from LOTR itself, but you can skip those if you want. Throughout this review, I will also quote extensively from letters Tolkien wrote, and I’d say those are crucial either way.

If you’re a seasoned Tolkien fan, I’m very curious about your view on what this LOTR newbee wrote about the matter, so don’t hesitate to disagree in the comments.

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NICO DOCKX TALKS WITH DENNIS TYFUS (2018)

Nico Dockx Talks With Dennis Tyfus

An outright fantastic book on artist Dennis Tyfus, a monograph really, and a bulky one: 880 pages. It’s lavishly illustrated: every other page is a full colour illustration, drawing, painting, photograph or collage, and the pages with text generally also feature smaller illustrations. This massive tome is the best publication yet to get a feel for the scope and nature of Tyfus’s work.

It is structured around a year-long daily email interview, printed in English. Dockx’s questions at times seem designed to showcase his own reading & his own network – there’s a lot of name dropping. As a result, the questions sometimes veer a bit too much into the hot air territory art critics infatuated with their own theoretical framework like. In other instances the questions are simply a bit daft, like this one: ‘Have you ever worked with notions of camouflage in your work (as sometimes it can be interesting to stay under the radar)?’. But I guess I’m too harsh on Dockx: coming up with 366 questions is no mean feat, and it is to his credit he provides a fertile platform for Tyfus’s thoughts.

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2019 FAVORITES

I might have to change the subtitle of this blog, as only 8 of the 26 books I read in 2019 were science fiction, and 3 were fantasy. I’m not sure if that trend will continue. We’ll see what crosses my path, or what grabs my attention from the stack pictured a few scrolls down. I’ll continue with a few art books in the mix though: titles on James Turrell, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Cy Twombly are in the queue.

For now, a genuine thank you to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. All the best to you and yours for 2020!

The new year should see a review of The Lord Of The Rings – I’ve finally started that, it’s great so far – and the massive Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, a book I started last January, digesting it in small doses. I had hoped to finish it before the second volume of translations comes out this month, but I won’t manage that. I also plan to write on Intermediary Spaces, the Éliane Radigue interview book by Julia Eckardt. I will also continue my rereads of the Dune series. (Update 26/02: my LOTR review turned out to be a massive 7000+ words, so enter at your own risk…)


A few blog stats for those of you who might be interested in such a thing… There were 14,913 views in 2019, and 8,719 visitors – a bit more than in 2018. The review I wrote the past year that was most successful was Destination: Void with 255 views. The most read reviews so far are those for New York 2140 (979 views since published), The Dosadi Experiment (957 views) and The Wandering Earth (768 views). Also still going strong (+500 views) are reviews for Green Earth, Death’s End, Last And First Men, What Kind Of Creatures Are We?, The Algebraist, Uprooted and Whipping Star. Most of these keep on getting views every couple of days. Herbert, Cixin Liu and KSR always seem to be do well, but I have no quick explanation for the success of my texts on Stapledon, Chomsky or Novik.


As for the actual list: below are the books I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2019, only 4 in total. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology and Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings each got 4 stars, and are all highly recommended too.

I might not have had that many perfect reads last year, but I enjoyed all the more music. If you scroll down, you’ll see that I’ve written a whole lot more about albums as I did the previous years – 2019 has been great on that front.

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