THE KNIGHT – Gene Wolfe (2004)

The Knight gene wolfeSomeday I will reread and review the four parts of The Book of the New Sun – one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. The consensus seems to be that Wolfe never topped that, but the appraisal for his other work is less unisono.

My own experience is similar. The Fifth Head of Cerberus went down relatively well, as did Urth of the New Sun, and I liked the first two parts of The Book of the Long Sun – a lot, at times – but dropped out of the third.

Enter The Wizard Knight – a later work, published when Wolfe was 73. The nature of this work is a bit unclear: is this a duology or one novel in two parts? The Knight was published a few months before The Wizard, some say for commercial reasons – Kill Bill: Vol. 1 came out in october 2003 and might have set a trend. The omnibus The Wizard Knight was published fairly quickly, in 2005.

Lots of reviewers seem to treat this as one novel – it sure is one story. However, the back of my Tor paperback of The Wizard starts with this quote from Publishers Weekly: “The Wizard stands alone and might even be best if read before The Knight, but will surely drive readers to the first as well….”

So I think it is fair to review The Knight separately, as the first part of a series, but I’ll reserve my judgement about the full story for when I’ve read the final volume too.

After the review, I’ll make some remarks about Wolfe’s politics as a reaction on an essay of his about The Lord of the Rings that might be of interest to some readers, even if they aren’t interested in The Knight.

Continue reading

QUARANTINE – Greg Egan (1992)

Quarantine Greg EganGreg Egan’s first novel, An Unusual Angle, was published in 1983, Egan being 22 at the time. It “concerns a high school boy who makes movies inside his head using a bio-mechanical camera, one that he has grown.” Nine years later, Quarantine appeared and instantly removed all doubts about Egan’s erstwhile juvenile talents.

What starts as a detective set in 2067 quickly turns into a head spinning novel about the possible existential effects of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – more specifically the consciousness causes collapse variant. In short: humans observing stuff limits the number of possible worlds.

If you thought the popcorn sci-fi of Dark Matter was hard, well, this is the real deal. On the other hand, compared to the only other Egan I’ve read so far – the brilliant Schild’s Ladder – this is an easier, more accessible book.

The first half is smooth reading: Nick Stavrianos, a hardboiled PI, investigates a kidnapping/closed room mystery. The specifics of the setting – Earth quarantined by “an impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system” in 2034 – seem a cool yet inconsequential backdrop at first. It’s brilliant how Egan manages to weld the two mysteries together.
Continue reading

THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE – Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)

The Ministry for the Future Robinson“This discursive battle, it’s very important.”

This is it. The final big KSR novel. I dreaded starting it, to be honest. Yet another climate book: don’t we know that story? His two previous ones were letdowns: New York 2140 was okay, but ultimately transparent, and Red Moon even formulaic: Stan seemed to have run out of steam. 

I think Robinson’s decision to stop writing long novels liberated him. And so his final big one is both a synthesis and a departure, and most importantly: totally unapologetic KSR, and a feast as such. It’s also a paradox, a book that is “desperate and hopeful in equal measure”, as the dust jacket has it. 

Some might think it not enough of a novel – a long essay perhaps. Some might think it boring, or preachy. I think none of that applies. I think it’s brave, fast-paced, and subdued. It’s a story for sure, and it builds on the legacy of that other great science fiction novel: 1930s Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. I loved The Ministry for the Future

The only criticism I can muster might be that Robinson’s hope might be non-sequiturish, so to say. Aren’t we doomed anyway? Who knows? Who will tell? “There are many realities on a planet this big.”

In the remainder of this review – about 3000 words – I will elaborate on all of the above, backed up by quite a few fragments from various recent interviews with KSR. It’s a joy to have a writer being so open & explicit about his thought process.

Continue reading

DÜRER & BASQUIAT (2019 & 2020)

Two very different art books this time. Next up will be a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s massive new cli fi novel The Ministry of the Future – I’m halfway through and enjoying it a lot. It’s totally unapologetic KSR, interesting both for its form as well as its content, and a swansong of sorts.


Albrecht Dürer MetzgerALBRECHT DÜRER – Edited by Christof Metzger (2019)

This catalog was published to accompany a huge Dürer exhibition in the Albertina in Vienna from September 2019 to January 2020.

As far as I can tell, this book doubles as the new go-to publication on Dürer as a draftsman and print maker – with the following caveat: Dürer has a legacy of nearly 1000 drawings, about 90 paintings and hundreds of woodcuts, and 3 theoretical books, so do not expect a full overview in these 488 pages. This is no catalogue raisonné. Continue reading

BRIEF AAN EEN MEISJE IN HOBOKEN — GESCHIEDENIS VAN DE REVOLUTIE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1977/1994)

This post is in Dutch, as I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans. The novel I review is a 1994 reissue with a different title of his 1977 debut.


Brief aan een meisje in HobokenBrief aan een meisje in Hoboken / Geschiedenis van de Revolutie neemt een wat aparte plaats in in het oeuvre van Jean-Marie Berckmans.

Zijn debuut verscheen ruim elf jaar voor Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei uit 1989, de eerste van wat in totaal 14 verhalenbundels zouden worden. Geschiedenis van de Revolutie is zijn enige werk dat geboekstaafd staat als een “roman”.

Het manuscript was al af in september 1974, iets voor Jean-Maries 21ste verjaardag. Hij begon het boek na zijn eerste kandidatuur Germaanse, en het kan daarom als een jeugdwerk worden beschouwd.

Toch zou het fout zijn deze korte roman van 160 pagina’s af te doen als een minder werk van een nog wat onvolwassen JMH. Continue reading

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD – Olga Tokarczuk (2009)

Drive your plow over the bones of the deadThis book came to my attention a year ago, when Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature – which was awarded in 2019, simultaneously with that of Peter Handke. One of four books of Tokarczuk available in English, the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published in 2018.

I was instantly intrigued by its title – I guess I still am a teenage metalhead first and foremost, and it’s hard to think of another title that captures the awe and worldview expressed in extreme metal more than this partial quote of English Romantic poet William Blake. His Proverbs from Hell – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – start with these lines:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

I’ll tell you a bit more on the excess & the wisdom in the novel after the jump.

This also struck me as a cousin of The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabó – an absolute masterpiece that also deals with an eccentric old female protagonist that’s something of a housekeeper, and similarly has a vibe that gently flirts with fairy tales & the mythic. The Door is one of my favorite books ever, so I had to check out this one too.

While Szabó’s book is superior, I had a great time reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Continue reading

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ – Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

A Canticle For LeibowitzWhat to write about this one? A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of science fiction’s most classic texts, and as a result it’s on the 4th place of the cumulative Classics of Science Fiction list, right behind The Left Hand of Darkness, Dune & The Dispossessed.

It is also widely read outside the science fiction community, and that gets you long articles in The New Yorker over 50 years after it was first published. This isn’t just sci fi, dear readers, but serious Literature too!

I’ve reviewed two other post-apocalyptic books the last few months – The Wild Shore & The Day of The Triffids. A Canticle has a wider scope in time than those novels, chronicling events after a 20th century nuclear holocaust in the 26th century, in 3174 and in 3781. At the same time, it feels just as provincial – even in the third part, when humanity is trying to colonize space. This is because Miller focuses on one community, in an American abbey founded to preserve the few scraps of knowledge that survived the Simplification – a purging revenge against science, scientists & literacy.

For those of you not familiar with the book, I’ll first write up a few basic facts and zoom in a bit on Walter Miller Jr.’s tragic life story. Continue reading

TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

TehanuSome 17 years after Le Guin completed the original Earthsea trilogy, she returns to the isle of Gont. This time she focuses on Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan, but also Sparrowhawk remains an important character, and Arren from The Farthest Shore plays a part as well.

It’s commonly known Le Guin wrote this book partly to rectify the gender imbalance in the initial trilogy, and in the fantasy genre in general. Indeed: wizards and mages are Men, and females with magical powers generally are foul witches or servile priestesses. The medieval setting of most fantasy stories is filled with patriarchy and Kings – nobody needs to be convinced of that. So yes, in today’s parlance, Tehanu is woke – but not fully woke, as I’ll try to explain.

Before I write a bit on the book’s political issues, let me try to give an overall appraisal of Tehanu, without spoiling the first three books.

Continue reading

SAGA: Book One – Vaughan & Staples // HERE – McGuire (2014)

Two reviews of comics / graphic novels this time – very different in content, tone and style. Both editions were published in 2014, and both have speculative elements – Saga has nothing but, Here only very sporadically dips into the future.

The McGuire goes back to his groundbreaking 6-page 1989 comic strip of the same name. The Saga series was started in 2012, and is on hiatus for the moment. Its first trade paperback collection won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story – it is a blend of space opera & fantasy.

Saga nahhh

Here dancing

Continue reading

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE – Arkady Martine (2019)

A Memory Called EmpireArkady Martine’s debut novel just won the 2020 Hugo and is shortlisted for the Clarke, so indeed, it has all the hallmarks of what people seem to like: a picture of a sprawling throne on the cover, and a “glossary of persons, places and objects” at the end.

There’s much to like in this book, especially a “cunningly plotted” story of palace intrigue centered around the new ambassador of a mining station in the capital city of the galaxy spanning Teixcalaanli empire – an empire that loves literature and poetry, and an empire in the midst of a succession crisis.

So let me be upfront: this was an okay book, a nice book, an entertaining book, a Tor book, and I’d even recommend it if you need your contemporary space opera fix. But at the same time, it was very, very generic. Maybe that calls for a checklist?

Continue reading

CHILDREN OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1976)

I’ve written a lengthy analysis of Dune, and of Dune Messiah too. My text on Dune focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Children of Dune Di Fate

“The landscape which met their gaze was beyond pity, nowhere did it pause – no hesitations in it at all.”

There is something relentless to Children of Dune. It was the most difficult hurdle yet in my project of rereading the entire series.

It is a bit of a surprise this became “the first hardcover best-seller ever in the science fiction field” and also won the 1977 Hugo, because there is undeniably truth in David Pringle’s assessment of the book being “convoluted stuff.”

There’s a paradox to this very review and how it determined my reading experience, and it has to do with that convolutedness. Because I knew I wanted to write this text, I read Children carefully – maybe too carefully, taking notes, trying to figure things out. Especially in the second half of the book, that left me gasping for air at times, unable to figure out what Herbert wanted to do, lost in the mystical ramblings about visions and futures, focusing on inconsistencies or what I thought were inconsistencies. It took a bit of joy out of reading.

At the same time, I did like the overall plot a lot, and could see Herbert had actually managed to tell yet another great story with perfect pacing, especially when the action kicked in: his characteristic style of cutting between short scenes with lots of dialogue somehow delivered the goods again. All that left me with about a 3 out of 5 stars tally, a bit in line with when I first read the series, and I then thought book 2 and 3 were the weakest of the six.

But when I started to reread (and reread and reread) all the quotes I had marked to get a better grip on the book’s difficult stuff, I actually understood more of it, and most inconsistencies dissolved. So yes, this review at times wrecked my reading – instead of just riding the flow, I focused too much on trying to understand – but in the end it also reconciled me with the book. That leaves me with a 3.5, maybe 4 star rating, because I still think Herbert could have cut back some on the mystic philosophy, without actually hurting its core.

In what follows, I first tried to write something of a review of the book: strengths, weaknesses, characters, you know the drill. I primarily focus on Alia as tragic figure, and also discuss an important thing that remains unclear & possibly inconsistent: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path.

For those that want to dive in even deeper, after that first part, I zoom in on four very specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience.

Both parts are a spoiler bonanza, but I guess this kind of writing will not appeal to those who haven’t read the books anyway.

The text is heavy with quotes, but I wrote it so that you can still follow the logic if you skip them – except once, and I’ll warn you there. The quotes are for the die-hards. I had 9504 words selected out of the book, of which I used about 6200. Add to that my own 4400 words, and abracadabra …another long read, totaling 10630 words. It is what it is, I couldn’t help it. A full, thorough discussion of the book needed those.

Continue reading

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS – John Wyndham (1951)

The Day of the TriffidsJust as I was mistaken about the content of Solaris, I had the wrong impression about John Wyndham’s classic post-apocalyptic novel as well. The title is responsible for that misconception, as The Day of the Triffids is not about triffids. Obviously aggressive & carnivorous mobile plants do play a part, but they are a sideshow. This is not the simple, verdant horror of the 1962 movie. Instead, the overall story deals with the social fall-out of another catastrophe altogether: an event in the beginning of the story that blinds nearly all humans.

The book is told by Bill Masen, who wakes up in a London hospital and discovers the vast majority of other people lost their sight overnight. A similar hospital opening was used in Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie film 28 Days Later… – and again in The Walking Dead. Boyle has acknowledged The Day of the Triffids as an inspiration, and his movie indeed has much more in common with the novel than that opening scene. It goes to show how influential Wyndham’s book has become, a huge commercial success when published, widely read by non-genre readers too.

Commercial success doesn’t imply quality, but I have to say: of all the early 60ies and 50ies science fiction I have read, this might very well be the title that feels the least dated – and that does say something about quality.

Not that its age doesn’t show at all. The book’s historical context informed its writing: Wyndham’s angst for nuclear catastrophe looms throughout the narrative, and also tensions with the USSR play a minor part. Wyndham partook in World War 2 – although how much of the fighting he has seen is unclear, serving as a cipher operator in the Normandy landings, “landing a few days after D-Day.” Continue reading

THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN – M. John Harrison (2020)

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again“Hard to know if it’s a neurosis or a survival characteristic.”

This is a tough nut to crack. You could say that I’m a Harrison fan – his latest short fiction collection You Should Come With Me Know was one of my favorite reads in 2017, and I liked the strange 2002 science fiction novel Light a lot. But aside the 15 pages of Doe Lea, I haven’t read anything else by him. The seminal Viriconium is on my TBR, as are the final 2 installments in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy began with Light. I also found a second hand copy of his 1971 debut The Committed Men – a new wave post-apocalyptic story set in the UK, and a copy of The Centauri Device, an “anti-space opera” that influenced Banks & Reynolds. I plan to read all of those, but at my current rate it will take me years. Anyhow, if you are a bit familiar with the titles I listed, you’ll notice Harrison has an impressive range – I know few speculative writers who have such a varied output.

It is 2020 today, and it is clear M. John Harrison has covered a lot of millage as a writer in the 50 years he’s been writing publicly. His first novel since 2012, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is published by Gollancz – which has published only science fiction and fantasy since its ownership changed in 1998. It’s maybe fitting Harrison’s new novel reconnects it to the company’s origin as a publisher of “high quality literature” too. The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is not science fiction. Speculative fiction could do, maybe, but I’d hesitate to use that moniker. Aside from a label that determines a potential reader’s expectations, the question of genre might not be important, were it not that Harrison seems to try and subvert every genre he writes in. A “failed allegory” perhaps?

This novel is a portrait of a lonely man and a lonely woman, both in some kind of anxious midlife crisis, both experiencing “a triumph of disconnection”, laterally entangled in some vague, batshit conspiracy, firmly embedded in London & Shropshire landscapes, sprinkled with a few weird, wrenched elements – but rest assured: those elements never dominate the story.

Harrison – undoubtly “a high-functioning romantic” like Victoria – mentions quite a few painters, paintings or prints. Aside from capriccios by Felix Kelly, and prints from John Atkinson Grimshaw and Eric Ravilious, he explicitly names The Red Rook (1948) by Gertrude Abercrombie, Sea Idyll (1887) by Arnold Böcklin, The Colossi of Memmon, Thebes, One (1872) by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner and Solar Eclipse in Venice, 6 July 1842 by Ippolito Cafi. Continue reading

SOLARIS – Stanisław Lem (1961)

Solaris Lem cover first editionAt the beginnings of my forays into science fiction, it quickly became clear Solaris was one of the key texts, and so a physical copy of the book has been on my shelves for years. There were two reasons I didn’t take it out sooner. The main thing was me having the wrong idea of what it was about. I’m not sure why, but I thought the story focused on a crew slowly growing mad, and I’d mentally labeled it something like ‘psychological horror in space’, a genre I’m not that interested in. The other reason was Steven Soderbergh’s adaption: I’d seen it in a movie theater when it came out back in 2002, and while I don’t remember any other thing about it, at the time my reaction was lukewarm at best.

It was only after a conversation in the comments to my review of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves that I realized I had the wrong idea about the book. That conversation was with Polish native Ola G, and it turns out she wrote two excellent pointers about Stanisław Lem, here and here – do click on those if you want an accessible yet fairly thorough overview of Lem. On the strength of Solaris and Ola’s posts, I have added Fiasco, The Invincible and The Cyberiad to my TBR.

Before I look a bit closer at the novel itself, a few notes on the translation. The English translation from 1970 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox was based on a French version. Not ideal, and Lem wasn’t satisfied with the result either. Sadly, it is the only available English version in print, even though Bill Johnston completed a direct translation from the original Polish in 2011 – a version Lem’s wife and son thought “captured the spirit of the original.” Johnston’s translation was released as an audio book and a Kindle edition, but a paper edition is stuck in legal limbo. I can’t say the prose was bad, but some sections felt a bit dry & lifeless, and I’m chalking that up to Cox & Kilmartin. Just to be clear: all this is no reason to not read this book – it is a deserved classic – but should you have the option: go for the Johnston version.

As in lots of Stanisław Lem’s stories, an important theme of Solaris is “the complete failure of human beings to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence”. I will not write a whole lot more about it here, as heaps of pages been written about it already. Curiously this theme is largely absent from the two latest movie adaptations, while it is central to the novel. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading