RAVEN STRATAGEM – Yoon Ha Lee (2017)

Raven Stratagem

While I don’t really feel like it, I can’t but start this review with an opinion on a minor event in the blogosphere some time ago. If you have no interest in a discussion of ethics in SF, and just want my opinion on Raven Stratagem, scroll down to the actual review at the very end. The first part of the text might also be of interest to those who haven’t read any of Yoon Ha Lee’s books, as the discussion is much, much wider than that.

About a year ago, 3 people in the so-called Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury posted reviews about Ninefox Gambit, the first book of The Machineries Of Empire.

Contrary to popular opinion – 9FG won the Locus for Best First Novel – those reviews were essentially negative, on what are essentially moral grounds.

These three individuals are not marginal voices in SF fandom. Before most activity on her blog stopped – as she overdosed on commercially-hyped SF – Megan AM of From Couch To Moon was one the most respected and influential online reviewers of SF. Nina Allan is a speculative author herself: her most recent novel The Rift won the BSFA and the Red Tentacle. Jonathan McCalmont was shortlisted twice for the BSFA for best non-fiction writer, and writes for Strange Horizons and Interzone.

For starters, here are four quotes that capture the essence of the argument, with links to the original texts. Clicking the links is worth your while, as the original pieces are extremely well written, differ in their opinions on the book in crucial respects, and all have a number of valid, lucid insights. I have no intention to go into all arguments, and do not claim these quotes represent the texts in full. They do however show a convergence over at least one point of criticism, a point I do want to examine thoroughly.

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GATEWAY – Frederik Pohl (1977)

Gateway

Gateway is a famous book. It’s one of the few novels that won 4 major prizes: the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Campbell award, and it’s on numerous essential SF lists.

While it’s perfectly self-contained, Pohl wrote 5 sequels: Beyond The Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), The Annals Of The Heechee (1987), The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Together with the 1972 novella The Merchants Of Venus, and The Gateway Trip – a short story collection that appeared in 1990 – these books form the Heechee saga.

The Heechee are a mysterious alien race that explored our Galaxy hundreds of millennia ago. Near Earth, they left structures on Venus, and – crucial for this novel – a space station in an asteroid, including functional spaceships. Humans can operate these, but don’t really understand the technology.

The basic premise of Gateway is brilliant: humans embark on voyages in these ships, but it’s a bit of a lottery. Most of the time, crews do not know where they’ll end up – there might be proverbial gold at the destination, but more likely it’ll be just a barren planet, or worse, mortal danger. The link with prospecting in the Wild West is easily made.

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THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL NIGHTMARE – J.G. Ballard (1963)

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare

This collection of short fiction is my first exposure to James Graham Ballard – best known for diverse books as the controversial fetish exploration Crash, the autobiographical war novel Empire Of The Sun and the post-apocaloptic early clifi classic The Drowned World.

Some of the stories featured are published in other collections, and there are slightly different editions of this collection too – from 1984 onward under a different title, The Voices Of Time. But there’s also a slightly earlier collection that has a very similar title, The Voices Of Time And Other Stories, with an overlap of 3 stories with The Four-Dimensional Nightmare / The Voices Of Time.

I try to shed light on all that in a bit more detail at the end of this review, with an advice about which edition you should get.

First things first: my thoughts on the individual stories in this early collection of J.G. Ballard.

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF CHILDHOOD – David F. Lancy (2014)

The Anthropology Of Childhood

I bought David Lancy’s The Anthropology Of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings a few weeks after I learned I would become a father. It has been lying around for about two years, and as my daughter is starting to say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, now felt like the right time to start it. Verbally expressing preferences is a big deal on the road to personhood.

Lancy is a Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, who wrote and edited several books on childhood and culture, starting his own research in the 1970ies. This book feels like a summary of the entire field, and can be considered Lancy’s crowning achievement. He draws on his own research here and there, but the bulk of this book is based on Lancy’s reading of countless other sources, giving it a vast scope.

On the back cover, Barry Bogin of Loughborough University puts it like this: “the most comprehensive, and perhaps only, review of the human child in terms of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology. Based on the best of theory and field ethnography, it is essential for any study of human development and human nature.”

I read the 2nd edition, which adds over 750 new sources to the first edition that appeared in 2008. 750 extra sources: that should be an indication of this book’s thoroughness. There’s 104 pages of bibliography, plus a 6-page author index, a 5-page topic index and a 7-page society index – all small print. The text itself is 410 pages long, riddled with quotes from other studies.

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ZERO K – Don DeLillo (2016)

Zero KWhen I learned that the author of White Noise – a staple of postmodernism – had written a science fiction novel, I was delighted. I thought White Noise was funny and profoundly human, a rare five star book really, so what would he do with a book on cryogenics? Most reviewers agreed that this new book was DeLillo’s best since Underworld – his big American masterwork – so that only made me more eager.

Calling Zero K science fiction is a bit of a stretch: companies that offer to freeze your body in the hope of future medical advances do exist, and have for quite some time. There is an amount of scientific speculation in Zero K, but do not expect the technology or the science to be the focus. Not that this matters much – SF readers with an open mind will find much to savor here.

The book’s structure is set up to lure the regular SF reader in: the bulk of the world building – so to say – happens in the first half of the book. We are introduced to The Convergence, a remote and secret compound where wealthy people choose to be frozen. The subdued sense of wonder is real, and the scenes, like the compound’s structures itself, are strange, detached, and at times even reminded me of Kafka. When it slowly turns out this book is not really a science fiction novel, but something entirely of its own, I couldn’t care less about its classification, and was entirely hooked.

A few chapters in I was more curious about DeLillo himself, and I read up on him before I continued. It entirely changed the way I framed the book: DeLillo was 79 years old when Zero K was published. Continue reading

MEMOIRS OF A SPACEWOMAN – Naomi Mitchison (1962)

Memoirs Of A SpacewomanEach and every contemporary review of Memoirs Of A Spacewoman I have found is overall positive, if not glowing. That’s understandable, as an obscure 60ies title by an author that is not generally known in the SF community takes a special kind of reader: the lover of “vintage scifi”. One does not coincidentally read this kind of book.

Recurring readers of this blog might have guessed I’m not a total, unconditional vintage SF fan. I read older SF for two reasons: to broaden my view on the history of the genre, and as a part of my search for SF that has endured the ages, and still does the job in 2018 as well. I’m a lenient reader as far as the first reason goes, but hard to please in the latter. Schizoid inner conflict being the result, it makes certain reviews harder to do.

This book can be considered partly as feminist writing, yet it was not marketed as such back in the days: publishers used to stress the sexual content, as Memoirs “explores with compassion and wit the infinite possibilities of erotic relationships between a human space-traveller and the bizarre incumbents of the planets she visits” according to my 1976 edition.

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THE ALGEBRAIST – Iain M. Banks (2004)

The AlgebraistPeople change. I’ve been reading SF for about a decade now, and Banks was one of my first loves. As I’ve explained in my review of Inversions, when he died in 2013 I still had a few of his books on my TBR, and I decided to savor them. Bad decision it turns out: much to my disappointment, I was terribly bored by The Algebraist. I stopped on page 242 of 534 and in hindsight I should have stopped at least 100 pages earlier.

I will never know whether I would have liked this book 5 or 10 years ago. A reread of some Culture novels will probably shed some light on that, but I cannot remember those books to have the problems I encountered here. Three and a half years ago I still liked Surface Detail, and I liked it a lot.

The Algebraist has drained my energy, and as a result I don’t even feel like writing a lengthy review – even though I usually like panning books that failed to connect with me. So let’s make it snappy.

There’s two main reasons why this space opera tome didn’t work for me.

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