EMPTY SPACE: A HAUNTING – M. John Harrison (2012)

Empty Space M John HarrisonI liked everything I’ve read by Harrison so far: Light, Nova Swing, the 2017 short story collection You Should Come With Me Now, and his latest 2020 novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. I liked it a lot. And I plan to read a whole lot more of Harrison too.

But I stopped reading Empty Space at 60% in. Not that it doesn’t have merit. The novel got glowing reviews on Speculiction and A Sky of Books and Movies. Paul Kincaid has called the entire trilogy “the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century” in the LA Review of Books. I can see why, but no – more on that later. On a sentence level, Harrison is a master, a poet. On a scene level, he manages to evoke much – technically he’s brilliant. The same goes for the emotional level: he is an expert in painting characters with only a wee bit of language.

But besides all that, I have come to realize the particular game Harrison plays in this particular novel simply does not interest me. For me, there was not enough story, and too much meta-puzzle.

Maybe I’ve overdosed on postmodern deconstruction at university? Then again, that was over 20 years ago. And I’m still interested in these matters. I’m still interested in the politics & epistemics & metaphysics & biology of representation and language. I agree with Harrison that we should be aware of the artificiality of our fictional entertainment. But I’m not sure if Empty Space works as a political-poetic manifesto.

I will look into some of these matters in the remainder of this text – not so much a traditional review, but an essay using interviews and reviews to ponder this particular branch of literature & art.

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LAPVONA – Ottessa Moshfegh (2022)

Lapvona MoshfeghOttessa Moshfegh is well known for My Year of Rest and Relaxation – the book that topped most year-end lists in 2018. That book dealt with depression and solitude in contemporary New York, and this new one is quite a jump from that. Appealing to genre readers and literary fans alike, Lapvona has a few very small fantasy elements, and is set in a fictional fiefdom somewhere in medieval Europe.

One of the protagonists is Marek, a 13-year old disfigured boy who is abused by his father yet retains a strong faith amid the hardship of a shepherd’s life. To say much more would spoil the fun – although some readers might not think this book fun: Moshfegh incorporates scenes that boarder body horror, depictions of rape, humiliation and cannibalism. Lisa Allardice in The Guardian said it like this: “Her work takes dirty realism and makes it filthier.” Even though such filth might evoke some level of disgust, there is a clear playfulness and humor in the book too.

Not that is not serious stuff, or mere gore for the sake of gore. Let’s quote Publishers Weekly again:

Moshfegh’s picture of medieval cruelty includes unsparing accounts of torture, rape, cannibalism, and witchcraft, and as Marek grapples with the pervasive brutality and whether remaining pure of heart is worth the trouble—or is even possible—the narrative tosses readers through a series of dizzying reversals. Throughout, Moshfegh brings her trademark fascination with the grotesque to depictions of the pandemic, inequality, and governmental corruption, making them feel both uncanny and all too familiar.

Yes – this is fictional, even fantastic, but I have seldom come across a book that is so sharp and insightful about today’s world & our shared reality. Let’s dig a little deeper.

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PERHAPS THE STARS – Ada Palmer (2021)

Perhaps The Stars Ada Palmer UK hardcoverThere are benefits to blogging: being part of a conversation, just as Ada Palmer with her writing wants to be part of the conversation. When I was on the brink of finishing Perhaps The Stars, Agnus Burke – from the excellent Utopia in the Works, a blog focused on rereading Kim Stanley Robinson – commented on my review of The Will to Battle, the previous book in Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. That comment helped me tremendously in pinpointing exactly what I wanted to say in this final review.

Before I get to that, a short recap for those of you who haven’t read the previous reviews. Perhaps the Stars is the fourth and final book of Terra Ignota, a series that started with Too Like the Lightening, a book that blew me away and that I rank among the best books I’ve read – in my review I try to explain why.

Book 2 and 3 were excellent as well, but not fully on the level of Palmer’s debut. And so I wrote lengthy analyses, trying to spell out my feelings. 8,600 words on Seven Surrenders, most notably on the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D. and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building. And 6,400 words on The Will to Battle, on the epistemic nature of the text & its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world, and about J.E.D.D.’s problematic motivation for his involvement in the coming war – linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem.

These reviews are a testimony of an ongoing reading process, and I wouldn’t have written certain parts with what I know in hindsight. I don’t think that’s a problem, as they serve as a mapping of sorts to the problems Palmer presents her readers – she has been vocal about one of her goals: getting people to think and engage with these books. So I won’t alter these reviews retroactively, that would defy their pondering, searching nature – except that I will add one remark to my review of Seven Surrenders, out of intellectual fairness.

Now that I’ve finished the full series, this final review – 5,500 words – will also serve as my thoughts on the full series, and for those thoughts I’ll start with Burke’s comment. I’ll also discuss some other stuff that wasn’t fully to my taste this time, and I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on the trolley problem itself & on a few of the series’ gender aspects.

In short, I think Palmer did an amazing job – an insane amount of work – crafting her narrative construction, providing tons of great ideas and sets and characters and twists and genuine moments of awe – but, and this may seem paradoxical for a novel full of really insightful stuff, I think the main philosophical foundation of the four Terra Ignota books is uninteresting and unproductive. How’s that for a cliffhanger?

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MENUET – Louis Paul Boon (1955)

Menuet Louis Paul BoonA post in Dutch, about one of the key works of Louis Paul Boon, a Flemish author born in 1912. He died in 1979, days before he was to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.

Menuet Minuet in English is an existential work about just three characters: a doubting, socially awkward man, his wife, and their young, cynical maid. Boon embeds their story in a stream of authentic newspaper clippings about accidents, murder and the like.

It has been translated into English, French, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Polish, Danish and Italian. You could do worse than hunt down a translation: Menuet packs a lot of punch for its short length: only 101 pages, but it manages to confront its readers with their own outlook on life.

Next post will be in English again – probably a review of Perhaps the Stars, the final book of the absolutely brilliant Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer.


Menuet wordt algemeen als een van de belangrijkste romans van Louis Paul Boon beschouwd, en hijzelf rekende het ook bij zijn beste werk. Niet slecht voor een boekje van 101 bladzijden dat naar eigen zeggen op 2 à 3 weken werd geschreven, in juni 1954.

Het boek gaat over een arbeider in een vrieskelder en de moeilijke verhouding tot zijn echtgenote en het jonge meisje dat bij hen mee het huishouden doet. Boon doet in 3 hoofdstukken hun relaas: eerst een hoofdstuk dat de man vertelt, daarna worden min of meer dezelfde gebeurtenissen verhaald door het meisje, en als laatste krijgen we het perspectief van de vrouw.

Boven de tekst – of eronder, in sommige drukken – is een strook van 8 regels opgenomen waarin allerlei krantenartikels worden samengevat. De artikels zijn volgens Boon authentiek – hij verzamelde ze gedurende een jaar – en berichten over ongelukken, moord en andere miserie. Een “modderstroom van faits-divers” zegt de achterflap, een stroom “die zich met de diepste ondertoon [van de romantekst mengt], zodat de subjectiviteit van de persoonlijke ellende [wordt opgenomen] in de algemene tragiek van de menselijke samenleving.” De roman zelf houdt het qua toon en proza trouwens heel wat luchtiger dan dat stukje flaptekst uit 1967.

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THE WILL TO BATTLE – Ada Palmer (2017)

The Will To Battle Ada Palmer hardcoverAda Palmer’s Terra Ignota tetralogy has me gripped. I read the first two in a month at the beginning of this year and took a bit of a pause before I started this third book: I needed a bit of air – these books are dense.

To recap: I absolutely loved Too Like the Lightning – I don’t think I’ve read a better debut ever. It’s not for everybody, but do yourself a favor: read my review to check out if it could be something for you. I also liked Seven Surrenders a lot – even though I had some remarks about what Palmer tried to do philosophically: about the metaphysics of the book, its ethics & its apparent gender essentialism. I wrote a 8,600 word analysis of all that and more, if you’re interested in such a thing.

This review won’t be as long, but still a hefty 6,400 words. The conceptual questions I voiced in my analysis of Seven Surrenders are not resolved in The Will to Battle, and there isn’t that much new information on these matters to analyze. Still, there’s enough to build upon what I wrote.

In my analysis, I will limit myself to two things. First a further discussion of the epistemic nature of the text and its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world. I’ve also changed my opinion a bit on the science fantasy matter, mainly because of an essay Palmer wrote online.

The second thing I’ll look at more closely is J.E.D.D.’s motivation for his involvement in the coming war: it is linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem – things I wrote about in my text on 7S as well. J.E.D.D.’s motivations are problematic to say the least – not wholly out of character.

Before I’ll get to the analytic part, I’ll do a quick assessment of the novel without spoilers – that could be of interest to those that have read none or one or two of the first books.

Just to be clear: I liked The Will to Battle a lot, probably a bit more even than Seven Surrenders. It was a bit less exuberant, less cartoonish, and it dwelled less on the problematic sides of 7S.

Book 4, Perhaps the Stars, has 608 pages of small print and slim margins – quite a difference with the 350 pages of normal print in The Will to Battle. I tend to avoid door stoppers, but the fact that I’m very eager to read it nonetheless attests for Palmer’s narrative powers. I’ll read one or two short books as palet cleansers, but I hope to post a review/analysis of Perhaps the Stars before the end of August. Stay tuned.


GENERAL APPRAISAL – spoiler free

I think it’s safe to say The Will to Battle is a transitional book, getting us from the more or less finished story of the first half to the series’ finale: a big battle, as in so much traditional speculative series. Continue reading

ZENDEGI (2010) & DISPERSION (2020) – Greg Egan

The main dish this time is Greg Egan’s novel Zendegi, a rich brew of near-future Iran, metaverse gaming, AI-modeling, mind-uploading and family tragedy – very human. It’s a bit of an atypical title in Egan’s oeuvre, and totally different from 2008’s Incandescence.

I’ll end with an appraisal of Dispersion, a fairly recent 158-page novella about a breakdown in a pastoral-ish society with 6 factions that operate more or less in different dimensions, out of sync most of the time. Egan demonstrates that the scientific mindset is the way out, not distrust and tribalism.


ZENDEGI  (2010)

Zendegi Greg EganI enjoyed Zendegi, even though the novel could have been better. Egan offers a story that tries to do a lot, which makes for a diverse reading experience. At first it is a near-future political thriller set in Iran, and it morphs into a story that combines a family tragedy with stuff about differing cultures, AI and mind-uploading.

Egan admits in his notes that the first part of the book “was always destined to be overtaken by reality”. He finished it “in July 2009, a month after the widely disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad”, followed by massive demonstrations and brutal crackdowns. Even though what Egan described in a fictional 2012 didn’t come to pass, he expressed the hope “that this part of the story captures something of the spirit of the times and the courage and ingenuity of the Iranian people.” It is no spoiler Egan’s future Iran more or less embraces modernity again. Continue reading

CHILDREN OF TIME – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

Children of Time Tchaikovsky

After writing a 10-book fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt, Tchaikovsky published Children of Time, his first science fiction novel. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award and it is generally considered one of his best novels.

Tchaikovsky seems to be well loved, and he provides much to love: he is even more productive than Alastair Reynolds, that other British commercial powerhouse. In 2021 he published 2 novels and 3 novellas, totaling 1,473 pages.

Science fiction is first and foremost a genre of ideas. Hard SF even more so, and while Tchaikovsky himself might not think in genres, I’ve seen this book described as Hard SF by lots of readers. Color me amazed that I found the ideas in this book severely lacking. My amazement only grew when I learned that Tchaikovsky holds a degree in zoology.

That degree might explain his interest in spiders, but it doesn’t explain the scientific bullshit. And as bullshit isn’t the only problem this book has, it will be no surprise that my review will be a negative one, much to my own dismay.

I really looked forward to reading this: I was promised some solid, original science fiction, with alien aliens and clever evolutionary world building. Even though I know blurbs and hypes should be distrusted, I willingly and knowingly walked into the muck that is Children of Time – hope is a nasty, bitter thing.

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THE HIGH SIERRA: A LOVE STORY – Kim Stanley Robinson (2022)

The High Sierra Kim Stanley Robinson coverMy fondness for Kim Stanley Robinson is no secret. I’ve only been disappointed by two of his books: The Memory of Whiteness, and Red Moon – which I didn’t even finish. And while I haven’t read all of his novels – 6 to go – whenever he publishes something new, I instantly buy and read it. Even if it is something as seemingly bizarre as a non-fiction book about hiking in the Californian Sierra Nevada.

It’s marketed somewhat as an autobiography as well: “Robinson’s own life-altering events, defining relationships, and unforgettable adventures form the narrative’s spine. And he illuminates the human communion with the wild and with the sublime, including the personal growth that only seems to come from time spent outdoors.”

Well – I think that part of the marketing is a bit off, but nonetheless I enjoyed reading this book. I’ll say a few words about why I did in a second, but let me first quote a part of the marketing blurb that is true: “a gorgeous, absorbing immersion in a place, born out of a desire to understand and share one of the greatest rapture-inducing experiences our planet offers. Packed with maps, gear advice, more than 100 breathtaking photos, and much more, it will inspire veteran hikers, casual walkers, and travel readers to prepare for a magnificent adventure.”

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TERMINAL BOREDOM: THIS IMMORTAL INCAL (3 short reviews)

Taste is a strange thing. We all know it, yet it continues to amaze me how different it can be, even in between people who often align. This post collects some thoughts on 3 books that were highly recommended by other bloggers whose tastes at times tend to be similar to mine.

As you can guess, none of the three titles – Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki, This Immortal by Zelazny and The Incal by Jodorowsky and Mœbius – worked for me.

In each case, I advise you follow the links to the other blogs to check out the other reviews – otherwise you might miss out on a book that could be a gem for you.


TERMINAL BOREDOM – Izumi Suzuki (2021)

Terminal Boredom SuzukiAccording to Jesse from Speculiction, this collection of short stories was the best book he read published in 2021, and he gave it 5 stars – which doesn’t happen much on his blog. Also Ola from Re-enchantment was generally impressed, albeit not as much.

Terminal Boredom collects 7 existential science fiction stories written between the mid-70ies and the mid-1980s, before Izumi Suzuki committed suicide in 1986, aged 36. Apparently she is a bit of a countercultural icon in Japan, and she had a tumultuous life, working as keypunch operator, hostess, nude model, and actor – both in pink films as in avant-garde theater.

It is the first time her work appears in English, and the stories were translated by 6 different people: Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O’Horan.

It’s interesting that this collection is framed in feminist terms, many reviews stressing the gender content. I think this framing is more dictated by marketing in our own times than the actual foundations of the stories themselves. While gender is a theme, no doubt, I would not say it is Suzuki’s focus, not at all.

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THE CHANGELING SEA – Patricia A. McKillip (1988)

The Changeling Sea McKillip

A few days ago, I read that Patricia A. McKillip died on the 6th of May, at the age of 74. I basically dropped what I was reading, and decided to read The Changeling Sea, so I could quickly post a review here as a small hommage.

I felt the need to do so because McKillip’s debut, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, made such an impression on me that I wanted to contribute my bit to keep McKillip’s flame burning.

The Changeling Sea is a short work, only 137 pages, but still a full novel – I wouldn’t call this a novelette as I’ve read here and there.

It’s also classified as young adult, but while some 14-year-olds will probably like this too, it is a very mature work. Rather straightforward and simple on the surface, and as such fairly easy to read, but I would not say this is juvenile, not at all. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. There are other similarities to Le Guin’s masterpiece as well: there’s some magic, and an island setting.

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FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID – Philip K. Dick (1974)

flow-my-tears-the-policeman-said-pkd-kresekJust a short review this time.

The more I read PKD and talk about him with fans, the more I get the impression that PKD is the kind of author that is especially read during one’s teens and early twenties. In that sense he is formative, but he’s often abandoned later, at least, lots of his work is, and many fans only recommended 1, 2 or 3 books while they have read lots of his novels.

Before this one, I had read Ubik, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly. I didn’t think particularly highly of any of those, but there was enough there to keep on reading Dick. Guess what: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said fits in neatly with that experience. It’s an okay novel, but it’s also muddled and bereft of any real depth. And despite Dick’s reputation, it’s not that wonky or weird either.

I’ll get to all that in a minute, but even though it fitted my previous encounters with his prose, Flow My Tears did alter my mind about PKD: I won’t actively seek out any of his novels anymore. If I happen to come across one cheap second hand, I’ll pick it up in a heartbeat, no doubt. But I’m not going to buy any of his work new again, or even look out for it in the second hand shops. And so while I’m still vaguely interested in reading The Man in the High Castle, The Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year and Time out of Joint, it will be serendipity that will decide whether I’ll read them or not. I might still buy a best of PKD short story collection, as I hear his real strength lies there – we’ll see.

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CAFÉ DE RAAF NOG STEEDS GESLOTEN – J.M.H. Berckmans (1990)

Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten JMH BerckmansA post in Dutch, again about cult writer Jean-Marie Berckmans, who died in 2008 – after a lifelong struggle with manic-depression, anxiety and addiction. His books are OOP and hard to find. I’m slowly working my way through his oeuvre.

This review is about his 3rd book. The title translates as “The Raven Bar Is Still Closed”. The bar really existed and was situated in the Lange Lozannastraat in Antwerp, Belgium. A commemorative plaque was put on the building’s facade in 2018.

Next post will be in English again – probably on Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by PKD.


Ik heb reeds over Berckmans geschreven, en indien je niet vertrouwd bent met wie hij was kan je best eerst wat ik eerder schreef lezen – links vind je onderaan.

Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten werd vrij snel na zijn 2e debuut Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei gepubliceerd, en zowel vormelijk als thematisch sluit het naadloos aan bij die bundel. Een aantal van de verhalen in Café De Raaf dateren trouwens al van voor Zevenslaper, en heel de bundel was zo goed als klaar in het voorjaar van 1990. Alles wat ik over Zevenslaper schreef geldt dus eigenlijk ook voor dit werk, en ik vermoed ook dat het veelal zal gelden voor Rock & roll met Frieda Vindevogel uit 1991, waarvan een aantal verhalen ook al langer aan het rijpen waren.

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THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)

The Lions of Al-Rassan

When I read The Fionavar Tapestry six years ago, I was totally enamored by it. Kay’s debut series is a high fantasy classic with overtones of Frazer’s Golden Bough. At the time I wrote – rather pompously – that “Kay manages to convey one of the key aspects of a Romantic worldview so, so well: we, mortal humans, are part of a vast Whole that is mysterious, ancient, uncaring and unforgiving. This Whole determines us, but at the same time we determine parts of the Whole too. We cannot expect the Whole to do our bidding, that we have to do ourselves. In acknowledging this, and in doing this bidding, living our lives, there is heroism and honor to be found.”

I still stand by these words, but nevertheless I find myself puzzled by certain aspects of The Lions of Al-Rassan that tie into said Romanticism: the ethics of violent heroism and honor as it is portrayed in Kay’s sixth novel – considered by many to be his best, in tandem with 1990’s Tigana.

I didn’t finish Tigana, abandoning it quickly because I couldn’t get over its obvious artificial nature, and because something in the prose didn’t ring true. Maybe I should have persisted, but either way I’m glad I didn’t give up on Kay because of it: The Lions Of Al-Rassan made my cry three times – once even for the duration of a couple of pages. No mean feat, no mean feat at all. So while I will raise some critical questions in this review, make no mistake about it: I enjoyed this book very, very much, and if historical fantasy is something you enjoy, do not hesitate to try Al-Rassan yourself.

The novel leans heavily on the Reconquista of Spain, which took about 4 centuries, but Kay compresses it into a single lifetime. Its setting resembles the Iberian peninsula, but the Muslims, Christians and Jews go by other names. Kay himself has talked about the benefits of historical fantasy as a genre:

First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.

I’m not sure I agree, at least, not in the case of Al-Rassan, because it is all so instantly recognizable as Spain somewhere in the 11 to 15th century, and if you’re a wee bit familiar with European history, the Kindath clearly are Jews, the Asharites clearly Muslims and the Jaddites clearly Christians.

That does not mean Kay didn’t manage to write a story about universal themes: the “interplay between bigotry and tolerance”, the “uses and misuses of religion for political ends” and “the real price of war paid in bloodshed, loss and grief.”

He did write something universal, but not because the story was fictionalized in a world with two moons, and names and some other stuff was changed. I think the story is universal simply because these themes are universal in and by themselves. The fact that Kay turned it into a successful story doesn’t have that much to do with the chosen genre but simply with his narrative craft, authorial decisions and excellent prose.

As for genre: I should warn potential readers with a narrow taste that this book hardly features magic or other tropes specific to (high) fantasy. There’s the two moons that just serve as a backdrop, and one sole instance of precognition that drives a crucial part of the story. That’s it. But there are assassins, horses, palaces, and sword-fighting. And because Kay does all that extremely well, most fans should get their kicks even without dragons, demons or fire-bolts.

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HOW MOLECULAR FORCES AND ROTATING PLANETS CREATE LIFE: THE EMERGENCE AND EVOLUTION OF PROKARYOTIC CELLS – Jan Spitzer (2021)

How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life Jan Spitzer

I thought I understood a thing or two about biology, and, more specifically, its genetic and general molecular side as well. I’ve read a couple of introductory level university course textbooks, like Biology, Evolution and Human Nature by Goldsmith & Zimmerman (2001), which was already pretty heavy on chemistry for somebody without an academic background in hard sciences, and a few more specific books, like the excellent The Flexible Phenotype by Piersma & Van Gils (2011) and Alex Rosenberg’s brilliant, rigorous Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology (2006).

I also thought I had a bit of grasp on origin of life theory, since I read Nick Lane’s excellent The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life (2015), a book I can’t say I understood completely, but enough so to enjoy it a lot.

Last year, I was absolutely gobsmacked by Contingency and Convergence: Towards a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russell Powell, a 2020 publication in the Vienna Series of Theoretical Biology, and so when I checked what else was published in that series, I didn’t hesitate to buy How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells by Jan Spitzer – I was intrigued by the subject matter because of Lane’s book, and if I’d survived that, how hard could it be?

Well, it turns out this was harder, much harder, yet I probably enjoyed it even more. Part of that enjoyment is witnessing other people’s genius, but the main reason I enjoyed it so much was because it provided entirely new and much more detailed insight in the miracle that is our existence.

Before I get to a more detailed discussion of the book, please consider the following drawing – a typical representation of a bacterial cell I found somewhere on the public domain.

prokaryote cell

This is the way most people are taught about cells. We tend to think we *understand* cells this way – at least, if we study some more of these drawings – including ones that zoom in a bit – and the accompanying chapters on cell biology carefully.

Now consider this fragment from Jan Spitzer’s book, and, for starters, compare the way the cytoplasm is represented in the generic textbook drawing with what Spitzer writes about it.

From a purely chemical point of view, a bacterial cell is exceedingly complicated. The cytoplasm contains in round numbers ~2,500,000 protein molecules of ~1,000 different kinds, ~200,000 transfer RNAs of ~50 kinds, ~1,500 short-lived messenger RNAs of ~400 kinds. (…) The number of ribosomes can vary between 2,000 for a slow-growing population and 70,000 in a fast-growing population. These biomacromolecules are hydrated by a relatively concentrated (~4%) electrolyte – a multicomponent buffered solution of simple ions, particularly potassium ions and phosphate, and other low-molecular weight metabolites from biochemical pathways (…). All this chemistry of long DNA double helices (partly condensed or coacervated by cationic proteins and amines), RNAs, and their protein complexes, all in their correct three-dimensional conformations, and all exhibiting their molecular motions – from bond rotations to large conformational motions and rotational and translational Brownian diffusion, taking place on timescales of many orders of magnitude, from femtosecond infrared motions to physiological motions at milliseconds, seconds, and hours – all this molecular motion is crowded and enclosed within the hydrophobic cell envelope. The cell envelope contains a lipid bilayer membrane, studded with a large number of integral hydrophobic proteins that sense the physicochemical state of both the external nutrient environment and the internal cytoplasmic side of the membrane and adjust the molecular and ionic traffic across the membrane accordingly. (…) The overall chemical system is in cyclic disequilibrium, where cells approximately double in size and then divide on the physiological timescale of seconds to hours.

Additionally, in all this, also the positions of all those different molecules matter, as there is no “bulk aqueous reservoir where chemical potentials (concentrations) are independent of position”, and so the cell system is “thus vectorial”, with aqueous nano-channels and nano-pools of dissolved ions and molecules.

It is yet another example of the huge gap that exists between what people – even highly educated people – think they know, and how the world actually is. It makes books like Spitzer’s humbling and full of wonder – even if that wonder is abstract, dry, and highly complex. Do we truly appreciate the wonder of life enough?

There’s one important caveat: however detailed that quote might seem, it only scratches the surface too. Or, to quote Spitzer again: “Today the molecular crowdedness of a living cell is an uncontroversial and well-appreciated fact, but its overall spatiotemporal complexity remains poorly understood.”


Just to be clear: I’m not the target audience for Spitzer’s book. Certain parts – when he got into the nuts and bolts of detailed chemical stuff – were way too advanced for me. I’d say about 1/3rd of the text was too technical for my current brain. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t understand Spitzer’s general message – it only meant that I could not contradict him on the technicalities. The fact that the main text is only 170 pages, but about 1/3rd of the full volume is academic credentials (20 pages of notes, 26 pages of references, a 5 page index) is indicative of its intellectual rigorousness.

I think one of the reasons that makes this book successful is that Spitzer approached it as a hobby. He has had no academic career in biology, but he is a physical chemist (PhD) and a chemical engineer (MS) with expertise in thermodynamics and aqueous colloids, who worked as a industrial R&D manager, on synthetic latexes and emulsion polymerization processes. The fact that he is retired and has no skin in the game allowed him to write freely and thoroughly. More information on Jan Spitzer and his ideas can be found here.

In the remainder of this text, I will try to summarize Spitzer’s main points, and conclude with a list of quotes & fragments of knowledge that struck me and that I wish to keep record of. Most of those should also be worthwhile to readers with an advanced interest in science, but you might need a dictionary depending on your prior knowledge – I know I needed one. As a coda, there’s a shortened version of a reading list Spitzer himself provides in his introduction.

For a review by someone with an academic background in these matters, I refer you to the Small Things Considered blog. It has a good, fairly detailed outline of the book. It is the only review of the book I found online, so I hope I contribute a bit to Spitzer’s dissemination with my own review – especially for those that are looking for more information about it without easy access to academic libraries.

Do I recommend it? I loved it, but if you’re not academically trained in these matters ymmv, so much is clear – if you’re adventurous, like a serious challenge, and want to keep your mind limber, go for it, I’d say. It’s also crystal clear that this is mandatory reading for anybody with a serious academic interest in the matter.

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WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE – Shirley Jackson (1962)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson (first cover Paul Bacon)Harold Bloom – the literary guru that claimed literature and politics should have nothing to do with each other – challenged the idea that Shirley Jackson’s work should be included in the Western canon. Nevertheless, in 2001 he edited a volume of Jackson’s short stories. There he wrote that “Her art of narration [stays] on the surface, and could not depict individual identities. Even ‘The Lottery’ wounds you once, and once only.”

Bloom is dead, and in 20 years time his work likely will only be read by a few academics. I think there’s a fair chance Shirley Jackson will still be read widely 50 years from now.

I’m not trying to dis academia, but Bloom’s tale is stark warning for us meta-writers to not confuse talking taste with pontificating. I have not read The Lottery – I will – but based on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’d say that Bloom’s claim about Jackson’s “art of narration” is a bit off.

The Western canon seems a bit of an outdated concept, or, at least, it is outdated as an apolitical idea: the reasons why something becomes a “classic” surely ain’t devoid of politcs. Either way, there is no doubt about the fact that Shirley Jackson belongs at least in the canon of speculative fiction – that peculiar subset of literature.

It turns out that We Have Always Lived in the Castle doesn’t contain any speculative or supernatural elements, yet it evokes an uncanny atmosphere that will delight many readers looking for Otherness. However strange it may be, Jackson manages to stay close to the human experience, and as a result she has written a book that will keep on resonating with generations to come.

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