WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… – Joanna Russ (1975)

We Are About To...After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance.

As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself–once a “Neochristian”–on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “gobal capitalism”).

The main gist of what I wanted to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better know The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

If you want a quick intro on the plot, here’s Joachim Boaz’s glowing review.


What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in Children Of Men, but it’s been ages since I’ve seen the movie, and I haven’t read the book by P.D. James. More importantly, doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.

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THE BURIED GIANT – Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant had been lying on my TBR for more than a year, and Ishiguro winning the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature prompted me to pick it up from the pile. The Swedish Academy issued a very short press release on October 5th, saying no more than Kazuo Ishigoru to be an author “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.

There are two important elements in that statement, the personal and the political, and I’ll get back to them in a moment. First, some basics on the book, and a rumination on intertextuality. Continue reading

PROVENANCE – Ann Leckie (2017)

provenance-20I enjoyed reading Provenance, but after I put it down the question whether this really was a good book quickly took my enjoyment hostage. As entertainment it works just fine: others have called it a comedy of manners, and Leckie has a distinctive, somewhat detached style which helps her create awkward social atmospheres seemingly effortlessly. The pacing is okay, the prose too, and enough stuff happens to keep the reader’s interest fresh. It needs repeating: all that is no mean feat, and Provenance is definitely not a bad book.

A small part of the novel’s charm deals with the strangeness of aliens – but ultimately it’s just the same old trick as in Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star: having aliens speak garbled English. I wrote ‘small’ part, because I wanted more. Provenance is set in the same universe as Leckie’s famous debut trilogy, but those of you craving more of the Rrrrrr or something like that hilarious & menacing Presger translator will be disappointed. In fact, the character of the Geck ambassador more or less repeats Leckie’s trick from Ancillary Mercy – yet without anything coming close to the genius of the fish sauce.

Provenance is the Imperial Radch trilogy light. Those books are about characters and pack quite some emotions – although it might not show at first, and Leckie takes her time to develop, all the way up to book 3. This is a standalone story of 438 pages, and the main character simply isn’t as interesting, her adventures not as compelling. In fact, the ending is so, so predictable I wonder if it’s a joke on Leckie’s part. Joke or not, it doesn’t make for literature that sticks, as the narrative arc ends with a fizzle, and the same goes for whatever emotional build up there might have been. Continue reading

THE TOMBS OF ATUAN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

The Tombs of AtuanA Wizard Of Earthsea is one of my favorite books regardless of genre. Absolutely mandatory for any serious fantasy reader, a small, delightful gem in the midst of heaps and heaps of cheap trash. The Tombs Of Atuan is the second of the Earthsea series, but should you be weary of starting yet another long fantasy streak, don’t worry: this book is its own, with a storyline that wraps up neatly. Both novels can be read independently.

Just as the first installment, it is a short book: only 130 pages. These books were originally intended as children’s literature, but easily defy and bridge whatever YA vs. grown up distinction.

Much to my surprise, Sparrowhawk, the Wizard of Earthsea himself, only appears halfway in this book. The protagonist this time around is Tenar, a child believed to be the incarnation of the high priestess to ancient, dark gods – serving temples, tombs and a subterranean labyrinth on Atuan, an desert island.

Again this is a bildungsroman. In A Wizard Of Eartsea the most important lesson was that one should acknowledge your negative sides, and accept death and darkness within. Le Guin this time serves us a journey out from darkness, but it is not so much a lesson for us readers, as the description of secularization growing. Tenar’s coming of age, her enlightenment, comes with the loss of superstition and faith. Continue reading

TAXI NAAR DE BOERHAAVESTRAAT – J.M.H. Berckmans (1995)

Taxi naar de BoerhaavestraatIk lees al jaren amper nog Nederlandstalige literatuur, vaak helemaal niks. Vorig jaar alleen Jagers In De Sneeuw, de fantastische debuutbundel van Eric Spinoy, uit 1986. Die had ik op een rommelmarkt in de Markgravelei in Antwerpen gevonden. Hetzelfde kraampje had ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat van JMH Berckmans. Het werk van Berckmans is moeilijk te vinden – alleen zijn laatste boek Ge Kunt Geen Twintig Zijn Op Suikerheuvel (2006) is nog relatief vlot verkrijgbaar, en 4 Laatste Verhalen – in 2009 postuum uitgegeven. Een vijftal andere titels zijn tegenwoordig wel verkrijgbaar als e-book, zelfs op bol.com: vooruitgang.

De Boerhaavestraat ligt in de Seefhoek, en op nummer 20 is er De Wilg, een sociaal centrum van het Antwerpse OCMW. De Wilg begeleidt onder andere mensen met een psychiatrische problematiek die elders geen opname kunnen betalen. Het is genoegzaam geweten dat Berckmans in 1977, 24, zelfmoord heeft proberen te plegen. Berckmans had na de eerste kandidatuur Germaanse – grote onderscheiding trouwens – een zware depressie gekregen, gevolgd door een manisch avontuur als succesvol schoenenverkoper in Italië, om dan terecht te komen in wat heel zijn leven lang een sukkelstraat zou blijven. Taxi Naar… is een bundel uit 1995 met 9 stukken, zo’n 10 tot 30 bladzijden lang.

Ik heb eens een avond en een nacht met Jean-Marie Henri Berckmans doorgebracht, op 18 november 2006, in jeugdhuis Zigzag in Merksplas, waar we een literaire avond hadden georganiseerd. Ik had er gedichten voorgelezen uit een ongepubliceerde bundel, en Berckmans zou er ook voorlezen. Daar is weinig van gekomen, zoals je hier al kon lezen. Geen twee jaar later was hij dood, gestorven omdat hij weinig at en enkel dronk.

JMH Berckmans

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GYPSY – Plus… – Carter Scholz (2015)

GypsyKim Stanley Robinson fans beware: Carter Scholz is a buddy of his, they go hiking in the Sierras together. It shows, both on the cover of this little gem, and in the content itself.

Gypsy Plus… is a 146 page booklet in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. Its main attraction is the novella Gypsy (97 pages), plus 2 shorter stories (The Nine Billion Names Of God, 10 pages, from 1984 – not the same as the Clarke title by the way, and Bad Pennies, 8 pp., 2009), a political essay on contemporary US politics (The United States Of Impunity, 14 pp.) and a 12-page interview with the author.

Gypsy is hard SF about a team of 21st century scientists who crowd-source a secret starship and abandon a doomed Earth for the Alpha Centauri system. Scholz says an interesting thing in the interview:

I’ve never seen an SF story take full stock on how hard, maybe impossible interstellar travel is going to be. Gypsy is my attempt to do it “with the net up” as the “hard SF” writers say. Even in the most rigorous hard SF, you always reach the hand-wave moment where the net drops to permit some bit of story development. I wanted to play it straight and let the story come out of the constraints of the physics. Continue reading

THE WARRIOR-PROPHET – R. Scott Bakker (2005)

The Warrior Prophet I dropped out of this book after 200 of its 600 pages, and that kind of makes me sad.

I really liked the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy: I read 54 books last year, and The Darkness That Comes Before was one of the 10 best.

This second installment is so much of a disappointment, I don’t even feel like explaining why. I’ll try anyhow, but I’ll keep it short.

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