LIGHT – M. John Harrison (2002)

41atffz3pxlDamn: hard review to write.

China Miéville has said the following about Micheal John Harrison: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment. Austere, unflinching and desperately moving, he is one of the very great writers alive today. And yes, he writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.”

Light is the first of three connected books – The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It won the Triptree award, and its sequel Nova Swing won the Clarke and the PKD. The trilogy is also known as the Empty Space trilogy – Empty Space being the title of the last book, published in 2012. All three books are quite different, and Light can easily be read as a standalone novel.

Do I agree with Mièville? I’m not sure, and besides, I’ve only read this one book. But after reading Light, I’ll finish the entire trilogy. The same goes for The Centauri Device – a stand-alone space opera title published in 1974. I also bought Viriconium – a fantasy series of novels and stories started in 1972 and finished in 1985. So I’ll get back to you in a couple of years on that Nobel prize. In the meantime, let me try to convey the atmosphere of Light. Continue reading

DYING INSIDE – Robert Silverberg (1972)

dying-insideOkay, first things first: Dying Inside is not really a scifi book. It’s a rather small story about David Selig, living in the second half of 20th century America. Selig can read minds – only he and one other guy he meets can do this – and his power is diminishing. That’s it. No speculative science, no future worlds, no space stuff, nothing, just one guy who inexplicably can read minds. That’s not a negative, it’s just something candidate readers should know.

Dying Inside easily fits in with earlier scifi, taking mental powers seriously – just like books as diverse as Foundation And Empire (1952), Childhood’s End (1953), The Demolished Man (1953), More Than Human (1953), The Santaroga Barrier (1968) or The Lathe Of Heaven (1971).

In a way, Dying Inside is the most pure of all those: Silverberg doesn’t give justifications for Selig’s powers, there’s no paranormal scientific framework, no Freudian veneer, no nothing. Selig’s powers are a coincidence. On the surface level, it’s just a character study of a speculative character losing his mutant mental power. On top of that, Selig doesn’t do anything spectacular with his powers. He doesn’t try to make money out of it, there’s no action, no mystery plot, no sleuthing. So, space opera fans should look elsewhere for their dose of entertainment.

All these caveats aside: I liked Dying Inside. Why? What’s a way to approach and appreciate this novel? I don’t care much for the approach of Michael Dirda – Washington Post book critic – who points to the easily recognized surface metaphor: yes, Dying Inside is about a character realizing he will die someday, “a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age”. I don’t feel Silverberg has particularly interesting or profound things to say about that shock. So, another approach maybe? Continue reading

MEMORY OF WATER – Emmi Itäranta (2012, transl. 2014)

memory-of-waterA few years ago I visited a specialized tea place in Barcelona, Spain. A quiet space, with dozens and dozens of fresh, handpicked, rare teas to choose from – each tea requiring its own precise water temperature & seeping duration. I don’t know anything about tea, and I asked for the “most complex” tea they had – thinking tasting tea was like tasting wine or whiskey. The woman serving me looked at me in surprise, at first not even understanding my question. It turned out tea is not about complexity at all. Those reviewers that complain about this book being boring, about having a plot in which nothing happens, similarly miss the point.

Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel is a quiet dystopian novel, set in a future where climate change has happened, fresh water is scarce and China has annexed Scandinavia. The 266 page book’s protagonist is Nario Kaitio, 17, and the daughter and apprentice of a tea master in a rural Scandinavian village, way up north. At the beginning of the novel, her father lets her in on a secret: he guards a hidden spring that has been her family’s responsibility for generations. This is not without danger: all water belongs to the military, and water crimes are punishable by death.


Fiction about futures with water shortage isn’t particularly rare. Itäranta does not break new ground, but nevertheless has managed to write a book with a voice of her own. Expect no action packed book like The Water Knife, nor something like the Fremen with a fully worked out water mythology as in Dune.

What you do get is Continue reading

SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

As I have become a happy father about a week ago, I don’t think I will be able to keep up my previous ratio of one book a week. I’ll continue to read & review what I’ve read here, so lets aim for 2 books a month – depending on page count, work, stuff, life.

2016 FAVORITES

First up: I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. Thank you. My best wishes for the new year!

I’ve read 54 titles in 2016, and reviewed 52. Below are the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order. Click on the covers for the review.



Bone SwansBone Swans – stories by C.S.E. Cooney (2015)
If I had to make a top 3 of things I read this year, this would be in it. 5 stories, 2 of which play on known fairytales. “Poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral.” You can read them for free online, links at the end of the review! Start with the title novella.


Europe In AutumnEurope in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (2014) 
Spy novel in a near future fractured Europe. A relevant, Cassandran pageturner. I’m looking forward to the sequels. If you’re not up for a new series: this one can be read independently, and Hutchinson in fact wrote this as a standalone title. Only afterwards did he decide to make it a series.


Ninefox GambitNinefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (2016) 
Poetic far future space opera by a Korean trans man. Checks all the right boxes for the 2016 crowd. Difficult at first, and at the end you still won’t be 100% sure about what’s going on. And the good thing: this is excellent & fresh on its own terms, not merely because of identity considerations.


The Darkness That Comes BeforeThe Darkness That Comes Before – R. Scott Bakker (2003)
Pretty grim epic fantasy with a messianic storyline. First of the Prince Of Nothing trilogy. That trilogy is followed by The Aspect Emperor series, so if you like it, you’re set for some quality reading time. A bit overlooked it seems. Fans of Steven Erikson should take note.


Wolf HallWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (2009)
Historical fiction that does complex court politics much, much better than most fantasy. 16th century England & the Tudors are the backdrop, and Thomas Cromwell a fascinating main character. This comes with the highest possible recommendation, and that’s for people that read only speculative fiction as well.


The Summer TreeThe Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay (1984)
The debut of one of fantasy’s most respected, ‘literary’ authors. Kay helped edit The Silmarillion, and that shows in this first book of The Fionavar Tapestry. While the Tolkien influence is obvious, it’s a thing of its own for sure. It had me teared up at times, and the prose is delightful art.


The Paper MenagerieThe Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu (2016)
I thought The Grace Of Kings, Liu’s long form fantasy debut, was a giant, overpraised bore. None of that stale, clunky writing in this charming, diverse collection of short stories. Here, his prose is fluid. It has a few hard-hitting, brutal stories. You can read the bulk online for free: the links are in the review!


The Water KnifeThe Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)
High octane dystopian fiction. Featuring an action hero running around and killing people. Set on the water deprived American West Coast, somewhere sooner than later. Both entertaining and brutal, both escapist reading and political warning.


White NoiseWhite Noise – Don DeLillo (1985)
I should read more non-speculative fiction, as both of the non-speculative titles I read this year made this year-end list. White Noise is still relevant 30 years later. One of the prime examples of postmodern literature, but that’s such an unclear, overused flag it might not help. Full of sharp observations and insightful irony. If you like Kurt Vonnegut, try this too.


More Than HumanMore Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
On the surface level a typical 1950ies book infused with the scientific hope for a paranormal breakthrough in telepathy and the likes. Nietzsche’s influence is fairly obvious, but well done. Beneath that, it’s a novel about Nature’s beauty and Man’s loneliness. Sturgeon’s prose is a treat, and his views are transcendentalist. It has a small but important racial component too, well before such became mainstream.


Green EarthGreen Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)
More people should read KSR. He’s without question the best and most pressing author working in speculative fiction today. This is his version of The Great American Novel. Originally published as the Science In The Capitol trilogy, Robinson decided to cut 300 pages and publish the resulting redux version as one big book. Highly political, and in a such a way it is relevant for all of humanity. Green Earth‘s main topic is climate change, and the place science should take in Washington’s decision making. Green Earth is also about raising small children, Buddhism, the outdoor life, Roosevelt and Emerson & Thoreau.


Gardens Of The MoonGardens Of The Moon – Steven Erikson (1999)
Erikson put the epic back in epic high fantasy with this debut, the first in a 10 book series. It features – among countless other things – an insane mage that’s a small wooden puppet & a sword that has a prison inside it. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is universally regarded as having redefined the genre.



I have the feeling 2016 wasn’t an as good a year for SFF as 2015 was. Less titles appealed to me, and of what I’ve read, not a lot stood out. But, I still want to read Dark Matter, Europe in Winter, The Great Ordeal, Children Of Earth And Sky and Version Control. With that in mind, for the moment, my vote for best book released in 2016 goes to Ninefox Gambit.

When I wrote my 2015 favorites post, I still had to read The Dark ForestThe Grace of KingsThe House Of Shattered WingsThe Traitor Baru CormorantThe Water KnifeDark OrbitThe Fifth SeasonGreen Earth, Twelve Kings In Sharakhai. I have to say most of those didn’t convince, and my favorite 2015 book firmly remains Aurora, with Luna: New Moon and Seveneves close behind. None of the 2016 releases I’ve read so far come close to those 3. I’m hoping Version Control will be in the same league. The only 2015 title that’s still on my current TBR is Europe At Midnight.

The worst 2016 book I read must be The Medusa Chronicles by Alastair Reynolds & Steven Baxter. Such a shame Reynolds can’t seem to find his old form back. Producing books at his current tempo won’t help.

What’s in store for 2017? I’m thrilled for KSR’s new novel New York 2140, set for release in March, as well as a few sequels: McDonald’s Wolf Moon (February), Lee’s Raven Stratagem (June) and Hutchinson’s Europe At Dawn. October will see the start of a new trilogy set in Elizabeth Bear’s the Eternal Sky universe – The Stone In The Skull. And maybe Rothfuss might finish revising Doors Of Stone, who knows? He’d better hurry, as I fear I might have evolved too much as a reader to still enjoy Kvothe’s story…



NON-BOOK FAVORITES

2016’s three mammoth music albums

It seems my music ‘consumption’ has diminished even further in 2016. For over two decades, I used to buy one or two albums a week, but it looks like I’m becoming more and more saturated. Nonethess, the final months of 2016 saw the release of three brilliant albums, all on the same label, but sounding very different, and among the best the innovative new music stalwart Erstwhile Records has ever released.

The Room Extended

Keith Rowe – The Room Extended
4 cds from the originator of the prepared guitar (no, that’s not Fred Firth or Lee Ronaldo) and founding member of AMM. Rowe is in his 70ies, and this is maybe his most important record. Introspective, dark, brooding, sparse, harsh, fragile, beautiful. Expect no rhythm nor harmony nor melody – just layered sound. Music like abstract painting.

The Earth And The Sky

Michael Pisaro – The Earth And The Sky (played by Reinier van Houdt)
Among the best solo piano albums I own, and that’s counting classical music, jazz and avant garde. So yes, you might have never heard of American contemporary composer Michael Pisaro, but this 3-cd collection truly is on par with recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Satie, Rachmaninov, Feldman, Cecil Taylor, Schlippenbach, Thelonius Monk and John Cage. It’s slow, introspective, and the recordings’ depth and textures are amazing. Just beautiful.

community

Graham Lambkin – Community
A double cd that’s hard to categorize. There are fragments of songs, found sound, collage, poetry, soundscapes, weirdness, musique concrète. Captivating, dreamy, urgent. A singular, adventurous voice in contemporary music.

Other music

metal
Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy Of Molten Bones   (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
Xibalba Itzaes – Ah Tza!   (Nuclear War Now!)

field recordings / composed improvisation / alternative country
Toshiya Tsunoda – Somashikiba   (edition.t)
Christian Wolff & Michael Pisaro – Looking Around   (Erstwhile)
Lambchop – FLOTUS   (Merge)

older stuff discovered this year
Neptune Towers – Caravans To Empire Algol   (Moonfog)
Misfits – Earth A.D. / Wolfs Blood   (Plan 9)

2016 pop singles
Rihanna – Work (feat. Drake)
Frank Ocean – Pink + White
Tourist LeMC – Horizon (feat. Wally)

Live performances

Hands down, the most brilliant thing I saw in 2016 was Joanna Newsom and her band, Bozar, Brussels, on the 24th of February. Goosebumps for the full 2 hours. Easily among the best 10 shows I saw in my entire life.

I didn’t see a lot of live music this year, but I was impressed by pianists Alexander Von Schlippenbach & Aki Takase in De Singer, Rijkevorsel (6/9), and pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing Erik Satie in De Singel, Antwerp (30/1). Also Gabriel Rios did a great job in OLT Rivierenhof, Deurne (10/8).

I also enjoyed Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud & Compagnie Vlovajob Pru dancing on dancehall & Gregorian polyphonic chants, in De Singel, Antwerp, on the 1st of October.

Art I’ll remember

James Turrell – burial chapel at the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof I, Berlin, Germany
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Sarah Lucas’ Bitch – Kunstmuseum Basel, Swiss

GARDENS OF THE MOON – Steven Erikson (1999)

gardens-of-the-moonI don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.

That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.

So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.

I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.

Continue reading

REMBRANDT: THE LATE WORKS – J. Bikker & G.J.M. Weber (2014)

rembrandt-the-late-worksAs I’m a bit bogged down in the 700 pages of Erikson’s epic Gardens Of The Moon, I’ve decided to do a review of an art book I’ve just finished. I will finish that first book of The Malazan series, I like it a lot, but it’s just such a slow, massive read, and on top of that it has been a busy few weeks too. So here’s some thoughts on Rembrandt! There’s more pictures after the jump!


I had the pleasure of coming of age in a group of friends heavily interested in contemporary art – 2 of them painters themselves – and so I’ve spent quite some time of my early twenties in art museums and galleries. I still do, but to a much, much lesser extent. During those years, I’ve come to realize that the history of art has a lot to offer too, and that art doesn’t need to be new and shiny to be of interest. I kinda already knew that, as I cried seeing Botticelli’s fifteenth century masterpiece Allegory of Spring in the Uffizi in Florence when I was 17. But it was only in 2007, when I saw a documentary on contemporary Belgian painter Sam Dillemans, that I gained the right mental tools to really look at “old” art. Dillemans is a huge Van Gogh fan, and he uses Van Gogh to explain that it’s not really important what you paint, but how you paint it. That’s obvious maybe, but to my 28-year old self it was revelatory.

Enter me, 35, seeing Rembrandt Van Rijn’s final self-portrait in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, July 2014. That museum has Vermeer’s The Girl With The Pearl Earing too, but the 1669 self-portrait is the true gem of the collection. I was struck by lightning. I had seen paintings by Rembrandt before, but never one of his late works. The way he painted his hair, topped with a kind of turban or ribbon, is simply stunning. In a way, what I saw was the birth of impressionist and even expressionist painting, already in the 17th century. It took me half an hour before I could continue to the next painting, and before leaving the museum, I returned to it again. A profound delight.

Zelfportret, 1669

So when The National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam put on an historic, first time exhibition devoted to Rembrandt’s later works, I was thrilled. The London show ran from October 2014 to January 2015, and travelled to Amsterdam afterwards, from February to May 2015. I saw the Amsterdam exhibition. It was amazing.

I didn’t buy the exhibition’s catalogue afterwards, but the taught of it kept nagging, and a few weeks ago I did order it. Jonathan Bikker & Gregor J.M. Weber have done an excellent job in putting together a clear yet detailed book on Rembrandt’s later works. The book includes contributions of the editors, and Majoerie E. Wieseman, Erik Hinterding, Marijn Schapelhouman and Anna Krekeler. It has 325 pages and tons of illustrations.

Continue reading