REMBRANDT & HERZOG

2 short reviews for now. I will post a longer one on The Ethnic Phenomenon soon, which again won’t be a review of a speculative work of fiction. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve finally started rereading Dune a few days ago – so I hope to review that in a few weeks.

If you’re not interested in the books, do check out my Werner Herzog documentary recommendations at the end.


Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Gentleman

REMBRANDT’S PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG GENTLEMAN – Jan Six (2018)

The backcover promises this account of how Jan Six discovered a new portrait by Rembrandt to be a “thriller”: sadly this is not the case. Six’s writing is dull and bland, and there is simply no tension whatsoever present, except at the very beginning, when Six spots the painting at Christie’s.

If you’ve read anything about Rembrandt by Ernst Van de Wetering – the leading Rembrandt expert – there won’t be that much to learn from this book about the practice of how 17th century paintings are ascribed to a painter, or on Rembrandt’s painterly processes. If you’re new to reading Rembrandt scholarship, this is an easy and quick crash course though. So, your milage may vary.

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DESDEMONA AND THE DEEP – C.S.E. Cooney (2019)

Desdemona and the deep

C.S.E. Cooney’s collection Bone Clocks was fantastic – one of my favorite fantasy reads ever. It won a World Fantasy Award, and the titular novella The Bone Swans Of Amandale was nominated for a Nebula. So I was pleased to see Desdemona And The Deep published by Tor: her first longer form publication. I wrote ‘longer form’, and not ‘long form’, as generally I’ve seen Desdemona And The Deep referred to as a ‘novella’ – I guess it says something about the inflation of the fantasy market that a 220-page story can’t just be called a novel.

Anyhow, it’s the third book in the Dark Breakers series. The previous installments The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers – both about 88 pages – were only published in magazines and as Kindle editions by Fairchild Books, and there’s talk of Tor reissuing them. The stories are set in the same world, but each can be read as stand alone.

That world is a world in three parts: Athe (more or less like regular Earth in a 1920ish setting), Valwode, a magic country in between where Gentry lives, and beneath that, Bana The Bonekingdom, where goblins dwell.

As for the story, this is what the back cover promises: the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

As you instantly see, it ticks a couple of 2019’s boxes: pollution, social justice, inequality. It’s not overtly on the cover, but you can add an explicit transgender story line to that list. I have to say Bone Swans was much more amoral, much less grounded in today’s political debates.

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HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

Human Trees

Melbourne’s Matthew Revert probably doesn’t ring a bell for most regular visitors of this blog – Human Trees is not exactly sci-fi. Yet he has made quite a name for himself within a small circle of experimental music lovers, with releases on seminal labels like Graham Lambkin’s Kye, and Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Known on a larger scale is his graphic design, Revert being “perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing” as noted by Gabino Iglesias in his glowing review of this novel.

Human Trees is Revert’s fifth book. It might be of interest to some speculative fiction fans, as some of those like their fiction weird and a bit surreal. This has a good dose of that – it is mainly set in the waiting rooms of a hospital where clocks and other timekeeping devices don’t function. I have seen other reviewers casually throw around names like David Lynch, Kafka and Beckett, so if those references trigger you: please read on.

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RECURSION – Blake Crouch (2019)

Recursion

2016’s Dark Matter was excellent: yes, it was light & fun, a thriller, but it was also a truly clever story in a multiverse setting that didn’t short circuit logically. Blake Crouch tried to emulate that succesful formula again in his latest book, this time using time travel as a way to conjure up multiple versions of reality.

Just to get things out of the way: Recursion starts promising, and overall it’s a fast paced page turner, but halfway the book it becomes clear this really is pulp of the worst sort. Blake pulls the quantum card casually – using just a few sentences – trying to justify nonsense: generally a good tell to spot bluffing.

Sadly, it only gets worse after that, utterly failing at inner consistency – even though Blake flashes “Clifford Johnson, Ph.D., professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern California” in the acknowledgments. Clifford “provided valuable insight in the final stages of the manuscript.” Blake talked to some professor: the hallmark of serious science fiction! But obviously, “all mistakes, assumptions, and crazy theories are mine alone”. You see: even the acknowledgments are riddled with cliché. When Blake near the end of the novel suddenly jerks “micro black holes”, wormholes and muons out of his hat, it becomes clear Clifford didn’t save the novel from being preposterous.

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FALL OR, DODGE IN HELL – Neal Stephenson (2019)

Fall Or Dodge In Hell

Stephenson’s first new single author book since 2015 is yet again a whopper: 883 pages. Seveneves was a love it or hate it affair: page after page crammed with technical details about what would happen if the moon would “blow up without warning and for no apparent reason.” 2017’s The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written with Nicole Galland, was a much lighter affair about time travel and witches – a breezy beach read I enjoyed, yet it lacked the single-minded urgency of Seveneves or the original brilliance of Anathem.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell falls somewhere in between: Stephenson caters to a larger audience again, without an overdose of scientific stuff, and hardly any difficult vocabulary – he (or his editor) even felt the need to explain references like one to M.C. Escher – but at the same time this is not mere entertainment.

Like Seveneves, Fall is actually 2 books in one. The second storyline appears after about 300 pages, and alternates more or less evenly with the first one for a couple of hundred pages, after which it dominates practically all of the final 200. In Seveneves the final part was far-future scifi, while Fall‘s second book is marketed as high fantasy – something it is not, as I’ll get back to in a few seconds.

It’s of note that this book isn’t really about Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast, even though he is the titular character. Dodge was the main character in REAMDE and Stephenson says he picked Dodge to recur because he liked writing him. Much to my surprise, he hardly figures in the book, at least as his biological self. (I haven’t read REAMDE, and Fall is a standalone book for sure.)

Shouldn’t you know already: Fall is about mind uploading after death, and a big chunk of the book is about executing Dodge’s last will and testament, after he suddenly dies at the very beginning. He wants his brain frozen, so it can be uploaded to a digital world when the technology comes into existence. As such, Fall starts in a very near-future setting, and we spend quite some time in the next 20 years or so. At the end of the book, we’re about a century from 2019.

The Dodge that manifests in the digital realm is simply a different character. A flat character. Which takes us straight to this novel weakness: the final 200 pages. If you allow me to pan those first, I’ll end with what makes this book worth a read.

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DARWINIAN REDUCTIONISM – Alex Rosenberg (2006)

Darwinian Reductionism

Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology must be one of the toughest books I’ve read. Luckily, it’s fantastic.

Alex Rosenberg is a professor of both Philosophy and Biology at Duke University. He has written about the philosophy of science before, like a book about the non-validity of economics as a science. Rosenberg is a true intellectual powerhouse, and to watch his mind work over the course of this book’s 238 pages (+ about 30 pages of references and index) is one of the pleasures of reading this book.

Kim Sterenly sketches what it’s about on the back cover:

“Over the last twenty years and more, philosophers and theoretical biologists have built an antireductionist consensus about biology. We have thought that biology is autonomous without being spooky. While biological systems are built from chemical ones, biological facts are not just physical facts, and biological explanations cannot be replaced by physical and chemical ones. The most consistent, articulate, informed, and lucid skeptic about this view has been Alex Rosenberg, and Darwinian Reductionism is the mature synthesis of his alternative vision. He argues that we can show the paradigm facts of biology – evolution and development – are built from the chemical and physical, and reduce to them. Moreover, he argues, unpleasantly plausibly, that defenders of the consensus must slip one way or the other: into spookiness about the biological, or into a reduction program for the biological.”

But for many people, including scientists, there are problems with materialistic reductionism, as Elliot Sober explains on the back cover, before pointing out how Rosenberg tackles those problems.

“For most philosophers, reductionism is wrong because it denies the fact of multiple realizability. For most biologists, reductionism is wrong because it involves a commitment to genetic determinism. In this stimulating new book, Rosenberg reconfigures the problem. His Darwinian reductionism denies genetic determinism and it has no problem with multiple realizability. It captures what scientific materialism should have been after all along.”

I will not get into the nuts and bolts of every argument. Aside from a general appraisal of the book, I’ll elaborate a bit on two small – yet fundamental – elements of critique, and end with a list of nuggets of wisdom I found while reading – a list that is probably of interest to those readers not interested in the general content of this book, yet who do have a healthy interest in science.

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TRANSITION – Iain M. Banks (2009)

Transition (red)

This is it, the last speculative fiction book of Banks I had to read. Surprisingly, Transition was marketed as an Iain Banks book in Europe, adopting his ‘non-genre’ moniker. Yet this would be classified as science fiction by most: a many-worlds thriller in a contemporary setting, so the American publisher decided to use Iain M. Banks instead.

I have often wondered wether I have changed a lot as a reader – Banks meant so much to me when I first started reading scifi – or if it’s just a coincidence my final three Banksian reads were unsatisfactory. His final 2 Culture books were fine, but Inversions and The Algebraist were bore-outs. Transition isn’t as bad as those 2 – it’s generally entertaining – but it has a few huge problems, making it rather pulpy. This critical Guardian review calls it an airport book, and I would concur: fun beach reading, as I tend to say, but not much more.

Negatives first, including something about an eternal orgasm.

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