2xDNF: BLOOD MERIDIAN (1985) & BRASYL (2007)

A short post on 2 books I didn’t finish, mainly because of their prose.


BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST – Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian McCarthyDubbed as one of the ultimate Great American Novels by some, I looked forward to reading this, but DNFed at 30%. It’s basically a violent (anti-)Western with lots of descriptions of landscapes. I have no idea why it is included in some lists of speculative fiction.

Why did I quit? The prose didn’t click. I thought it was contrived, and convoluted because of that. Taste obviously, as lots of people seem to like its poetry, and even say it is genius. Lots of reviews on Goodreads extensively quote examples of sentences & entire passages, so take a look at those to see if it could work for you.

I also don’t buy the premise of the book – or what the general consensus seems to be on its premise – namely the fact that man is depraved. “Man” is such a generalization that statements like that are hardly interesting. True, at times some humans act in a depraved way, but the vast majority of people I know are good at heart. Then again, if I had kept on reading, I might have seen McCarthy was being ironic. Who knows?

For contrast, here’s Caryn James from the NYT on the novel in 1985: “This latest book is his most important, for it puts in perspective the Faulknerian language and unprovoked violence running through the previous works, which were often viewed as exercises in style or studies of evil. ”Blood Meridian” makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.”


BRASYL – Ian McDonald (2007)

BrasylBrasyl – a near-future account of Brazil – started out good, but at 30% I still couldn’t figure out what the story was about, and the stop-start prose started bugging me: chaotic & jumbled.

I started reading some reviews on Goodreads, and came across this by Ian James:

“the description of being able to see into parallel worlds was not at all believable, and it made no sense that the poison from a frog conferred the ability to do so in humans, just because that frog’s retina is supposedly capable of detecting a single quantum of light (and is thus able to see into the quantum world). Also, just because you can see billions of parallel worlds does not mean you can predict the future, find out answers to questions in your own world, or be able to travel in time. It made NO sense, and it was not explained at all. There was some gibberish about quantum computers somehow causing a sort of gateway between parallel worlds, but this unconvincing pseudo-scientific explanation was muddled up with the hallucinogenic or mind-altering psychic power “explanation” in other parts of the book.”

I decided to cut my loses, because it is exactly that kind of stuff that bugs me these days.

I liked River of Gods & Luna: New Moon a lot, but Luna: Wolf Moon didn’t convince me to read the third Luna installment. This time McDonald failed to convince me altogether. I still have The Dervish House on my TBR, we’ll see about that one.


Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature

DE VOORSTAD GROEIT – Louis Paul Boon (1943)

De Voorstad Groeit (LP Boon) 9e druk 2000This time a post in Dutch, about the debut of Louis Paul Boon, an Flemish author, born in 1912. In 1979 he was invited to the Swedish embassy sometime before the Nobel Prize was awarded, likely to be informed of him winning it, but since he died the day before, he never got it, as Nobel Prizes are only awarded to the living. De Voorstad Groeit translates as The Suburb Grows, and deals with themes of urbanization, poverty and the lives of factory workers somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.

An early French translation by Marcel Defosse was never published, and no other translations exist as far as I know. A shame, because this book remains as powerful and relevant as when it was written. It has been compared to the work of Jon Dos Passos.

Next post will be in English again – probably a review of Bewilderment by Richard Powers.



Hoewel Boon een van onze grootste schrijvers is, en misschien zelfs de grootste romancier, is het grootste deel van zijn omvangrijke oeuvre enkel tweedehands verkrijgbaar. Van dit debuut werden in de loop der jaren ongeveer 82 000 exemplaren verkocht, omnibusuitgaven incluis. Ik las de 9e druk, de zogenaamde wetenschappelijke ‘Werkuitgave’, in 2000 door Querido uitgegeven op vijftienhonderd exemplaren, met achteraan een 40-tal erg interessante bladzijden publicatiehistoriek, receptiegeschiedenis en tekstverantwoording.

Die publicatiehistoriek is opmerkelijk omdat dit boek tijdens de oorlog is uitgegeven, nadat het in 1942 de Leo L. Krynprijs had gekregen – een literaire prijs met o.a. Willem Elsschot in de jury. Dat toont eens te meer ons – of toch op z’n minst mijn – gebrekkig historisch besef aan. Ik had niet gedacht dat tijdens de Duitse bezetting literaire prijzen werden uitgeschreven, of dat Angèle Manteau 3000 expemplaren van dit boek had kunnen of zelfs willen uitgeven – winkelprijs 35 Belgische Frank. Het is zelfs besproken door heel wat (Duitsgezinde) recensenten.

Die Duitsgezinde heren zijn het haast allemaal roerend eens dat De Voorstad Groeit vormelijk en qua taal een ijzersterk boek is en Boon een groot nieuw talent. Enkel over de inhoud twijfelt men: het boek zou te ‘miserabilistisch’ zijn, en daarom als het ware voorbijgestreefd. De Nieuwe Orde kwam er immers aan, en na de oorlog zouden alle problemen van de arbeiders en het volk toch als sneeuw voor de zon verdwijnen?

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THE BLACK COMPANY – Glen Cook (1984)

While the goofy 80ies cover by Keith Berdak to the left suggests otherwise, The Black Company hardly feels dated.

Or maybe scrap that, as it is the first book in a long standing dark fantasy series – 10 novels, some short stories, a spin-off – that has only 217 pages. Only two hundred seventeen, indeed.

It features none of the things most publishers demand of fantasy in the 21st century: no impressionistic descriptions of exotic fragrances of herbs & spices on the local market, no 400 pages of set-up for the next book to sell. In short: this is the real deal, not some streamlined version of what generic fantasy has become.

More so, The Black Company is seminal, if we have to believe Steven ‘Mazalan’ Erikson: “With the Black Company series Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face of fantasy – something a lot of people didn’t notice and maybe still don’t. He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the cliché archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote.”

Cook’s series is also often described as a precursor to grimdark – even if violence doesn’t take center stage in this first book. What takes center stage is plot: Cook wrote a fast paced story about a group of mercenaries involved in a continent-wide battle.

But characters aren’t unimportant either – this indeed is the story of a band of brothers, and while there isn’t that much psychological depth at display in this first book, I suspect that I will end up caring a lot about these men by the time the series is finished – even if most of them probably will be dead by then.

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DUNE: PART ONE – Denis Villeneuve (2021)

Dune Part One Poster While this is not a movie blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the new Dune film that was released yesterday – except in the USA, where it will be released on October 22. For those that are interested, I’ve invested quite some time writing about Frank Herbert’s books and my reread of the Dune series in particular, resulting in a series of long posts – links at the end of this review.

What I will not do is compare this movie to Denis Villeneuve’s other sci fi work, as I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 or Arrival – even though I did read both stories on which those were based. I will also refrain from commenting on what David Lynch did or didn’t do better with his 1984 adaptation – I’ve seen that movie multiple times, but it has been years, and my memories of it are sketchy to the extent I can only say two things about it: I liked it, but the movie probably won’t make much sense to somebody that hasn’t read the book.

I’ll simply try to give an honest appraisal of how I experienced the new film, based on just one viewing. I have no intention of writing a lengthy analysis, nor add to the Twitter bloodsport on Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Keynes or the White Savior Myth.

So, is the movie any good? Does it do the book justice? The short answer is a double yes, loud and clear. The longer answer needs a bit more words. No spoilers, I promise.

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BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions VonnegutBreakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a pivotal book in Vonnegut’s career as an author. It’s his 7th novel, and the one published after his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. Published when he was 53, it took him years to write, with a lengthy pause due to chronic depression. In a way, it is his farewell to fiction, intending to abandon the fictional form and the novel as ways to change the world or get to the truth. He returned to novels quickly however, publishing seven more.

I think the book was difficult to write because Slaughterhouse-Five was so good, and Vonnegut knew it would be hard to top. Despite the long gestation period, he wasn’t happy with the result and “gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.” The critics were critical too, yet it remains one of his best known works – maybe in the wake of SH5‘s success?

Every artist has to deal with repetition, and Vonnegut tried to tackle it in this book by trying out two new things, but it are not much more than formal attempts, hardly changing the tone and the voice of his writing. The result is that Breakfast of Champions never rises above being generic Vonnegut. A quick dissection after the jump.

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FIASCO – Stanisław Lem (1986)

Fiasco Lem John Alfred DornIn two weeks, on the 12th of September 2021, Stanisław Lem was born 100 years ago. That, coupled with the writer’s continuing popularity, made the Polish parliament declare 2021 officially to be the Year of Stanisław Lem, with festivities in Kraków and some new publications.

No better time for me to review Lem’s final novel, Fiasco. Lem stopped writing novels afterwards, but continued to publish non-fiction, mainly in the form of essays, until he died in 2006.

Fiasco has a curious publication history: the book was commissioned by a German publisher, and first published in a German translation in 1986. It was published in Polish some time later, and translated into English by Michael Kandel in 1987. Kandel translated 9 other Lem titles, including His Master’s Voice and The Cyberiad, and as far as I can tell his work is looked upon quite favorably, contrary to Kilmartin & Cox’s translation of Solaris.

I’ve read Solaris last year, and liked it a lot. Based on an overview of Polish native Ola G’s favorite Lem novels, and generally glowing reviews, I decided to read this one as my next Lem. Normally Ola’s recommendations do work out, but I hate to report I found Fiasco a terrible, terrible read.

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HOCKNEY: SPRING CANNOT BE CANCELLED (2021) & A CHRONOLOGY (2020)

I have to confess David Hockney always remained a bit under my radar – when I was younger and wilder, I probably thought him too conventional or so, and more importantly, it seems as if the museums I’ve visited the last 20 years in the various cities around the world didn’t have many of his paintings on display. I really cannot recall seeing a Hockney in real life – although I must have, I’m sure. But when I learned of the Van Gogh & Hockney exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2019 it was as if I was struck by lightning. Hockney’s landscape paintings of the last 15 years are among the best landscapes I know in the history of painting.

I’ve tried to remedy my ignorance by reading about him, and I have to say, I’m very much looking forward to the double exhibition in Bozar, Brussels, later this year.


DAVID HOCKNEY. A CHRONOLOGY. – Hans Werner Holzwarth, David Hockney, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima & Lutz Eitel (2020)

This budget Taschen book – 20 euros, like the stellar Basquiat in the same 40th Anniversary Edition series – is a marvel. 511 pages, excellent reproductions and an authoritative, clear text by Lutz Eitel.

IT is a newly assembled edition from the SUMO size David Hockney: A Bigger Book and the chronology volume that accompanied that expensive limited edition mammoth. It is the only career spanning monograph in existence I know of. There’s 2007’s Hockney’s pictures by Thames & Hudson, but that is very, very low on text.

Effectively organized as a chronology, it starts at the end of the 50ies up onto 2016, and has about 1.5 page text for each year, followed by about 8 to 10 pages of art. Hockney’s full oeuvre is on display: paintings, water colors, drawings, photographic assemblages, stage designs, iPad drawings, etc. Continue reading

HERETICS OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1984)

This is the 5th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 11,600 words, the longest in the series so far. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune.

My text on Dune itself 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 looks at its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and at the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things. My text on God Emperor is nearly 9,000 words and examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. It also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write, and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series – contrasting with its prior central theme of the absence of free will. There’s also bits on the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and various inconsistencies in the novel.

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.


Heretics of Dune (Schoenherr)A view that’s pretty pervasive is that the first three books are the best, and that Herbert kinda lost it afterwards. I don’t buy into this narrative. While I enjoyed Messiah, I also thought it was a dumbed down version of what Herbert did with Dune itself. Children had a great story, but also felt a bit convoluted and unclear. The overarching plot in the first two sequels is straightforward however, with a time frame that’s united, and characters that easily tie into the first book. As such it is fairly easy to grasp. It is only with the unplanned fourth book, God Emperor, that Herbert truly takes another canvas and paints something new, 3500 years after the original trilogy, and in the process he puffs up the attempts at philosophy. I think that book fails as philosophy, but at the same time it is a testament to an outrageous imagination. It’s understandable that readers who read Dune mainly for the action and sensawunda got bogged down in God Emperor, and cut their losses. But it’s also shortsighted, as Herbert picked up the pace again with Heretics.

Word has it Herbert planned another trilogy to finish the entire series after the pivotal God Emperor, and indeed, the story of Heretics of Dune is immediately continued in Chapterhouse: Dune. Frank Herbert died in 1986, but it’s not that hard to imagine he had indeed one final volume outlined – something his son Brian and Kevin Anderson tried to cash in with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. And cash there was, as Herbert “received what was said to be the biggest contract ever for a science fiction novel” for Heretics of Dune. It came out in March 1984, right after his wife Beverly died of lung cancer on February 7th. She had been battling the disease for 10 years.

Now that I’ve reread it, I feel that Heretics resembles Dune most of all the sequels. It’s not dumbed down nor convoluted, it’s fairly clear, and it again has the right mixture of imagination, action and political scheming. But while Dune for me was a straight 10 that even got better when I reread it, Heretics doesn’t even come close, even though it is the best of the sequels I’ve reread yet.

In what follows, I’ll first dissect some of the novel’s problems. At the end of that section is my overall appraisal of Heretics, and an examination of certain parallels qua plot & personnel with the first Dune, so this first part of the analysis doubles as a review of sorts. As the dissection will deal with the pulpy plot, I will have to spoil some of it.

Afterwards, I’ll examine some of the book’s core concepts. As Heretics puts the Bene Gesserit front and center, I will try to gauge their motives first, however murky they are. Also heresy, variation & love get a section, and the final focus will be a major shift in the series, as this time, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically, in the sense that they might even be incompatible. This is no fault per se: about 20 years have passed between writing Dune and Heretics, and it would be odd for a writer to still hold the exact same beliefs after two decades. As change was such an important concept of the series so far, it is also fitting.

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A SCANNER DARKLY – Philip K. Dick (1977)

A Scanner Darkly (Pepper)A Scanner Darkly isn’t really science fiction: PKD didn’t want to publish a mainstream literary novel as his previous attempts had been failures. The publisher suggested Dick to put in a few bits of strange technology (the scramble suit) and set its timeline in 1994, so that it could be marketed as science fiction.

The book is a semi-autobiographical story based on Dick’s own struggles with drugs in the early 70ies. In this troubled period, he took amphetamines full time, and stopped writing all together. He talked about it in a 1977 interview with Uwe Anton and Werner Fuchs:

“But on the drug thing, what happened was that after my wife Nancy left me in 1970, I was in a state of complete desolation and despair, and suicidally depressed because I really loved her. She took my little girl with her, who I really loved, and I didn’t see my little girl for – I saw her only once in a whole year, just for a few minutes. I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs. But that was for a period of just about a year. And then I just took amphetamines. I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends.”

The interview also specifically talks about A Scanner Darkly:

“I saw things that if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I simply wouldn’t have believed them. (…) Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw. I mean I saw even worse things than I put in A Scanner Darkly. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn’t complete a sentence, they really couldn’t state a sentence. And this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and I just saw, you know, it was like a vision of Hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime, and I was just…I’m just…it’s just…well, I was in love with a girl who was an addict and I didn’t know she was an addict and it was just pathetic. So I wrote A Scanner Darkly.
But, I did take amphetamines for years in order to be able to – I was able to produce 68 final pages of copy a day. But I write very slowly now and I take my time, because I don’t have any economic pressures. I was supporting, at one time, four children and a wife with very expensive tastes. Like she bought a Jaguar and so forth. I just had to write and that is the only way I could do it. And, you know, I’d like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I’m not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, turn out that volume of writing. So I can’t really say that for me amphetamines were a total, negative thing.”

Remarkably, A Scanner Darkly is a book on drugs, yet it wasn’t written under influence.

“Ah, well, my writing falls into two degrees, the writing done under the influence of drugs and the writing I’ve done when I’m not under the influence of drugs. But when I’m not under the influence of drugs I write about drugs. I took amphetamines for years in order to get energy to write. I had to write so much in order to make a living because our pay rates were so low. In five years I wrote sixteen novels, which is incredible. (…) But as soon as I began to earn enough money so that I didn’t have to write so many books, I stopped taking amphetamines. So now I don’t take anything like that. And I never wrote anything under the influence of psychedelics. For instance, Palmer Eldritch I wrote without ever having even seen psychedelic drugs.”

That’s it for the background – what about the novel itself?

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WHAT IS REAL? THE UNFINISHED QUEST FOR THE MEANING OF QUANTUM PHYSICS – Adam Becker (2018)

Let me start with the blurb to give you some context:

“The untold story of the heretical thinkers who dared to question the nature of our quantum universe
Every physicist agrees quantum mechanics is among humanity’s finest scientific achievements. But ask what it means, and the result will be a brawl. For a century, most physicists have followed Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation and dismissed questions about the reality underlying quantum physics as meaningless. A mishmash of solipsism and poor reasoning, Copenhagen endured, as Bohr’s students vigorously protected his legacy, and the physics community favored practical experiments over philosophical arguments. As a result, questioning the status quo long meant professional ruin. And yet, from the 1920s to today, physicists like John Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett persisted in seeking the true meaning of quantum mechanics. What Is Real? is the gripping story of this battle of ideas and of the courageous scientists who dared to stand up for truth.


While What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics is marketed as a popular science book, it should be mandatory reading for professional physicists, as it is a critical history of their field first and foremost, trying to explain why a problematic theory like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics has endured for so long.

It works both as a solid overview of the science and possible interpretations of quantum theory, and as a sociological history of the workings of the field – both from a European and American perspective. There is much to learn here: about quantum science, about science as a practice, and about philosophy of science as well. Continue reading

INCANDESCENCE – Greg Egan (2008)

Incandescence egan“All I learnt in the void was that our best guess so far is certainly wrong.”

While not totally unfamiliar with Greg Egan – I’ve read the brilliant Schild’s Ladder, and his early Quarantine – I did start Incandescence with the wrong expectations.

The blurb of the British 2009 Gollancz paperback promises something akin to space opera:

A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the Amalgam, a vast, cooperative meta-civilisation, and the Aloof, the silent occupiers of the galactic core. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but travellers intrepid enough can take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy’s central bulge.

Rakesh has waited all his life for adventure to come calling. When he meets a traveller who claims she was woken by the Aloof mid-journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to hunt down the uncharted world from which the meteor came, deep in the Aloof’s territory. 

Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a translucent world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. They live on the margins of a rigidly organised society, seeking to decipher the subtle clues that might reveal the true nature of the Splinter. In fact, their world is in danger of extinction, and as the evidence accumulates, Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

As Rakesh gradually uncovers the history of the lost DNA world, his search leads him to startling revelations about the Splinter – and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.”

I’ve quoted it in full, because it is striking because of two things: Egan’s own rigorous ethics concerning book jackets (see my review of Schild’s Ladder for the full anecdote), and his scathing reply to a review of Incandescence by Adam Roberts in Strange Horizons. Let me try to explain, and provide my own review of sorts by doing so.

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ROADSIDE PICNIC – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

Roadside Picnic Sarah OlsonA quick write-up this time, of a rather short book – 193 pages. I’ve read the new 2012 translation of Olena Bormashenko, which includes a 3-page foreword by Le Guin (okay, but not essential at all), and an excellent afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the history of the novel’s publication in Russia. The book was altered under pressure of the censors at the time, and it’s interesting to read a bit on the mechanics of that, just as Boris’ detached tone about the affair is of note – basically, he points out that all those petty bureaucrats are dead and forgotten, so why dwell on the past too long? The text in this edition is how the Strugatsky brothers intended it to be.

My first attempt of reading something by the Strugatskies wasn’t successful – I quickly abandoned Hard To Be a God because I found it too transparent – but felt I should try another of their titles nonetheless. I’ve been drawn to this particular book because of M. John Harrison’s excellent Nova Swing, which takes the basics of Roadside Picnic as a foundation for its own story.

The shared premises is the same: mysterious aliens visited for a while and left behind bits of unknown technology and debris in the zone where they visited. That zone also became a bit ‘strange’ because of it. Some people make it their living of illegally searching for alien artifacts inside the zone, risking their lives in the process.

There are some glowing reviews of Roadside Picnic online (like this one on Speculiction) and overall this seems a well-loved book, that’s also being taken very serious as Literature. The fact that it was the inspiration for Stalker, the 1979 movie by Tarkovsky undoubtedly added to the book’s fame and prestige.

My own thoughts after the jump.

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THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN – Gene Wolfe (1980-83)

The Shadow of the Torurer (Maitz without title)This is a 5500 word essay on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.



The first time I read The Book of the New Sun must have been somewhere in 2011, and it has remained a strong favorite in my mind ever since, easily top 5 ever. As The Folio Society recently published a more or less affordable version of their limited edition treatment of the book, I decided that was a good excuses to whip out too much cash on a book I already owned, and reread the entire thing.

Much has been written about Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, and I have no intention whatsoever to add to certain debates surrounding these volumes – on the contrary: to me these debates miss an important point, as I will try to explain later.

Deep down I was reluctant to start the reread. My other encounters with Wolfe’s prose haven’t always been fully successful, and I feared The Book of the New Sun to be a lesser affair than I remembered. I have to admit that to a certain extent is was – but that is not to say it became a bad book: I still rank it among my favorite reads.

Before I’ll get to the bulk of this review, first some introductionary remarks to those unfamiliar with the book.


The Book of the New Sun was first published as 4 separate volumes: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Two volume editions have been published as Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, and single volume editions have been published as The Book of the New Sun, and also as Severian of the Guild.

When I started rereading it, I intended to review only The Shadow of the Torturer, and then turn to some other books before starting the second volume. But it quickly dawned on me such a review wouldn’t do the novel justice. A review of Shadow might have worked if it had been my first read, but since my memories of the other volumes – not perfect, mind you – had such a gravitational pull, I could only finish the entire thing before writing this. That is not unlike Wolfe himself, who intended to write a novella, but when is was done it turned out to be a tetralogy, only finishing the final draft of the first book when he had finished the second drafts of the remaining 3 parts.

Because he was pressured by his publisher, Wolfe published a coda to this story in 1987, The Urth of the New Sun. I will reread that too someday, but I feel I shouldn’t take it into account for this review, as Wolfe didn’t conceive of it while he wrote this. The same goes for the two related series The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun – published between 1993-1996 and 1999-2003. I won’t take their subject matter into account either: they weren’t part of the quadruple canon, and as such can’t really be used to weigh the original artistic merit. I feel that lots of the interpretations of TBotNS based on certain things in the later series could be considered a form of Hineininterpretierung.

Those who dread being sucked into a 12 book ‘Solar Cycle’, such fear is unwarranted. The Book of the New Sun was conceived as a stand-alone, and if you like it a lot, there’s no harm in reading the coda, Urth. But Long Sun and Short Sun are generally considered works of lesser quality – except by hardcore Wolfe fans – and their main stories are only very tangentially related. I’ve read the first 3 of Long Sun (reviews here), but chances are I’ll never start its final book.


The Book of the New Sun is a dying earth novel, set on Urth, a far-future version of Earth, or an Earth before our own, in some different time cycle. It’s a world that has lost most scientific abilities, and resembles a society straight out of a fantasy novel – even though remnants of technology exist, and certain of the upper classes still have access to flying ships. In the backdrop of the story, there are aliens that try to enslave humanity, and yet other aliens that want to help our race to revive the sun, which has dimmed to such an extent stars are even visible by day. The moon’s light is green, as it has been terraformed in the past, but humans forgot when and how, and can’t get there anymore.

It is the first-person narrative of Severian, a young man belonging to the guild of the torturers – “The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence”, who is disgraced and exiled, and ultimately “backs into the throne” seemingly by accident, and turns out to be something of a messiah. Like in other works by Wolfe, Severian is an unreliable narrator, but more on that in a minute.

The Book of the New Sun is considered by many as one of the towering achievements of science fiction or science fantasy, and I’ve read serious people putting it on the same level as Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. It won lots of awards, and tends to be found near the top of many lists of best speculative fiction. Word has it that this weird and strange book can only be fully understood after three readings.

So what to write about this illustrious work?

I will talk first about its religious themes – Wolfe was a devout Catholic – and how the question whether this book can be enjoyed by agnostics or atheists too ties into the trap that Wolfe has set, a trap that has ensnared many of those writing New Sun exegesis on message boards, Facebook groups, mailing lists and Reddit.

As an intermezzo, I’ve written a short passage about Severian’s outlook on free will, and I’ll end with some thoughts on my rereading experience, and my current appraisal of New Sun – will I read it a third time?

This entire text is spoiler free.

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2 BOOKS ON BRAINS: ‘HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS’ (2020) & ‘BEAUTIFUL BRAIN: THE DRAWINGS OF SANTIAGO RAMON Y CAJAL’ (2017)

I’m rereading The Book of the New Sun at the moment, and while I first thought to just read Shadow of the Torturer, it felt wrong to write a review of the first volume only, so I’m going to finish all 4 volumes and then write on the entire thing.

That means no new speculative book review for now, but two very different books on the brain. First a scientific account of rationality and neurobiologic algorithmic decision making, after that an art-science hybrid: a catalogue of historical pen and ink drawings by neuroanatomist Cajal, which includes a biography and some other text on the matter.


HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS – Thomas Boraud (2020)

This is the English edition of the 2015 French publication Matière à décision, but updated with new data, some mistakes corrected and also partly rewritten structurally – with a new chapter added as the most striking change. As such, I’d very much call this a 2020 book indeed, and that’s of note in an ever evolving field.

The basic question this book tries to answer is whether neurobiological science supports the case for rational decision-making. It does so by using a bottom-up approach, “beginning with the neural matter and tracing the journey of how decision-making might have emerged from the physicochemical interactions between its components.”

This book is a strange hybrid. It both tries to give a short overview of the philosophical debate and the history of the science involved – including a bit of behavioral economy – and it tries to answer the question using an algorithmic model based on actual vertebrate brain science. Continue reading

CONTINGENCY AND CONVERGENCE : TOWARD A COSMIC BIOLOGY OF BODY AND MIND – Russell Powell (2020)

First a general overview & appraisal of the book, and after that there’s a fairly lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of nuggets of wisdom I want to keep on record, and those could be interesting for you too.


For starters, the summary on the back: “In this book, Russell Powell investigates whether we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere. Weaving together disparate philosophical and empirical threads, Powell offers the first detailed analysis of the interplay between contingency and convergence in macroevolution, as it relates to both complex life in general and cognitively complex life in particular. If the evolution of mind is not a historical accident, the product of convergence rather than contingency, then, Powell asks, is mind likely to be an evolutionarily important feature of any living world?”

Or, as the MIT website states it in short: “Can we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere?”

The book doesn’t presuppose a lot of working knowledge: Powell takes care to explain all the concepts and the history of science & philosophy one needs to understand his arguments. As such it is perfectly self-contained, BUT, mind you: this is hardcore stuff, it is not a popular science book at all. It has 280 pages of carefully and tightly argued text, there’s not a lot of redundancy, not even on the sentence level, and as such keeping a search engine at hand while reading this is no luxury. Continue reading