2019 FAVORITES

I might have to change the subtitle of this blog, as only 8 of the 26 books I read in 2019 were science fiction, and 3 were fantasy. I’m not sure if that trend will continue. We’ll see what crosses my path, or what grabs my attention from the stack pictured a few scrolls down. I’ll continue with a few art books in the mix though: titles on James Turrell, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Cy Twombly are in the queue.

For now, a genuine thank you to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. All the best to you and yours for 2020!

The new year should see a review of The Lord Of The Rings – I’ve finally started that, it’s great so far – and the massive Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, a book I started last January, digesting it in small doses. I had hoped to finish it before the second volume of translations comes out this month, but I won’t manage that. I also plan to write on Intermediary Spaces, the Éliane Radigue interview book by Julia Eckardt. I will also continue my rereads of the Dune series.


A few blog stats for those of you who might be interested in such a thing… There were 14,913 views in 2019, and 8,719 visitors – a bit more than in 2018. The review I wrote the past year that was most successful was Destination: Void with 255 views. The most read reviews so far are those for New York 2140 (979 views since published), The Dosadi Experiment (957 views) and The Wandering Earth (768 views). Also still going strong (+500 views) are reviews for Green Earth, Death’s End, Last And First Men, What Kind Of Creatures Are We?, The Algebraist, Uprooted and Whipping Star. Most of these keep on getting views every couple of days. Herbert, Cixin Liu and KSR always seem to be do well, but I have no quick explanation for the success of my texts on Stapledon, Chomsky or Novik.


As for the actual list: below are the books I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2019, only 4 in total. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology and Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings each got 4 stars, and are all highly recommended too.

I might not have had that many perfect reads last year, but I enjoyed all the more music. If you scroll down, you’ll see that I’ve written a whole lot more about albums as I did the previous years – 2019 has been great on that front.

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MARY TOFT; OR, THE RABBIT QUEEN – Dexter Palmer (2019)

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

My love for Version Control, Dexter Palmer’s previous novel, is no secret. It was one of the best book I’ve read in 2016. It’s the only time travel novel I know that doesn’t short circuit, maybe because it’s not primarily a time travel novel to begin with – but something more akin to a near future Jonathan Franzen book. So when I saw this new one advertised, I pre-ordered it instantly, and started it the moment it was delivered to my door: that’s how high my expectations were.

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, Palmer’s third book, is not speculative fiction. It’s a historical novel set in 1726, about something that really happened and yet reeks of magic: Mary Toft, a farmer’s wife, confounded England’s medical community by giving birth to seventeen dead rabbits. The rabbits aren’t whole though – it’s usually just a head, some legs and a bit of intestines. To the 21st century reader, it’s immediately clear this must have been a hoax, so Palmer doesn’t rely on magical wonder for tension.

What we get instead is a book dealing with the psychology of collective delusions & expectations that guide perception – an epistemological tale indeed. A book about Truth. Add to that a focus on the human penchant for the dark, and you get a book that’s right up my ally.

Yet I was not fully convinced. Or at least – my expectations were not met, and the book proves its own point. Had I read this book without reading Version Control first, my reaction to it would have been different, but I’m still not exactly sure how…

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LANGUAGE UNLIMITED (2019) – PICASSO (2018) – HANFF (1970)

Short write-ups of three very different books: a new linguistics book intended for a general audience, a splendid book on Picasso’s drawings & an epistolary classic of some sorts…

There’s even one I can recommend 100%!

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BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Octavia E. Butler (1995)

Bloodchild and other stories

Lists are fun. Hence me browsing the fantastic Classics of Science Fiction, an aggregated ranking site by James W. Harris – who blogs about sci fi and getting older over at Auxiliary Memory. I saw that Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was ranked as the most cited (i.e. best) science fiction short story. For what it’s worth, it also won a Hugo, Locus, Nebula & SF Chronicle award. As I hadn’t read anything yet by Octavia Butler, I thought Bloodchild would be a good place to start. I found a cheap second hand copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories easily, and here we are.

There’s a couple of editions of the collection. The copy I got was published in 1995, and that has 5 stories, plus 2 essays. From 2005 onward however, it has been printed with two more stories – Amnesty and The Book Of Martha, both written in 2003. I did some googling and I found those easily, here and here – I’ll review them too. The fact that I chose to look online for the additional material is telling: this is not a bad collection – and that from an author who opens the preface to her collection with this line: “The truth is, I hate short story writing.”

It’s somewhat of a behind the scenes publication: each story is followed by an afterword of about 2 pages, in which Butler talks a bit about what she wanted to do with the story or how it came about. They are generally interesting, nothing spectacular, but nice enough. There’s also 2 short essays on writing, and I’ll say a few words about those later.

I’ll just do a quick write up of each story and a wee bit of concluding thoughts. This’ll be a fairly short review for a short book: 145 pages in my edition. Here we go:

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DUNE – Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune (Folio Society)I’ve read Dune for the first time 5 years ago. I finished it the day Iain Banks died. The entire series became one of my favorite reading experiences. I tried some of Herbert’s other books too – they all proved to be duds, except for Soul Catcher. I even read what Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson concocted as what was supposed to be the finale, Dune 7 – the so-so Hunters of Dune and the god-awful Sandworms of Dune.

Rereading is always a risk, and I hardly do so. Taste evolves. The thing is: when I first read Dune, I wasn’t that well versed in science fiction. I’d read about 5 Culture novels by Banks, Anathem by Stephenson, maybe the Foundation trilogy. I might have been easily impressed. Today, 5 years later, I’ve read a whole lot more of speculative fiction: about 240 titles says my Worlds Without End database. I’ve tried to be broad in my approach, reading older stuff and newer stuff alike. Today, I’m a different judge.

This time, I read the fantastic Folio Society edition, which has an excellent essay by Michael Dirda, and an interesting afterword by Brian Herbert. It’s good to see confirmed that Dune indeed was revolutionary. A book much longer than most other novels of its day – other titles were only a quarter to a third of Dune‘s 215,000 words. That meant an expensive book – “in excess of 5 dollars”, the highest retail price yet for any science fiction novel. And it was not only revolutionary because of its size – it was also an untold commercial succes. While initial sales were slow, it got the Nebula and Hugo awards, and by 1970 the book began to sell well. The sequels became bestsellers too, with sales running into the millions. By 1979 it sold over 10 million copies, and when David Lynch’s 1985 movie adaptation was released, Dune reached no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, 20 years after its first publication. Frank Herbert was “the first [science fiction] writer to obtain such high level of readership.”

So, what has this reread told me? What to write about the most lauded science fiction book of all time? Well, easy! That it is within rights and reason to call this one of the greatest books ever – if it falls into your taste range.

My guess is that it will still be read a century from now.  Dune has a timeless quality: ditching computers was a genius move by Herbert. In Destination: Void – which was first published in Galaxy Magazine around the same time as Dune – Herbert took the opposite route, embedding a great thriller in pages and pages of computer babble. Even though that babble was realistic at the time, it utterly fails today. Not so with Dune.

There’s hardly anything that can age in this book. Some have argued that the feudal structure of the galactic empire is unrealistic for a far future human world – and as such dated in the 21st century – but that is an utterly naive, Western centrist thought. If the last decade has taught us something, is that we should not take democracy for granted – especially not as global turmoil has only just begon at the dawn of disruptive climate change. Who’s so arrogant to claim they have a clear grasp on the arrow of time? Hegel fans? Hari Seldon?

Before I’ll try to shed some more light on why this book remains such a joy to read in 2019 – brace yourselves for a 5444 words analysis of both form and content – let me tackle a bit of critique first. I’d rather have that out of the way, and let the rest of my text be an unapologetic celebration of Herbert’s creation.


Not everybody likes Dune. Blogger Megan AM, in her 2014 review on From Couch To Moon, worded her problem with the protagonist, Paul, as follows:

If he’s cold, the reader doesn’t care what happens to him. If he’s infallible, he’ll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you’ve got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it’s D.O.A.

Gender pops up a bit further in her review:

Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul’s behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts… even his followers. Even Paul’s mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. “You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura,” she charged. “You never cease indoctrinating” (p. 620). How incredibly appealing to a young male…

I think both issues are partly the result of a biased reading – admittedly, something we are all prone too. Yes, older fiction is up to “contemporary dissection” – but the text itself has its rights.

I fully agree that the hero in Dune appeals to readers because of his control, among other things. But there are two problems in Megan’s gendered reading. First are some facts residing in Dune itself. Also Jessica – and to a lesser extent Chani – are in control. They too are heroes of the book. There are other characters who are just as calculating and manipulative, and some of them – all of the Bene Gesserit – are female. Focusing on Paul’s male biological sex seems strange in that light. Moreover, when Paul becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, Herbert explicitly frames this as a fusion of 2 genders, Paul becoming both taker and giver, male and female. Sure, one could debate the problematic dichotomy of that – but either way these facts show the analysis of Megan is a bit superficial.

A second problem is Megan’s own portrayal of “young males” and “many males in the SF community”. I’m sure there are quite a lot of women too who want control over their emotions, thoughts, actions. I think Megan too easily frames Paul’s behavior as a problematic masculine ideal.

To end this first part of my review, let me get back to Megan’s first quote. Paul is “cold” and “infallible”, a “predetermined” “demigod”, and all that could make readers not care for him. Megan is fully right about the predetermined part, but I think exactly that is one of the crucial strengths of the book – I’ll get to that in more detail after the jump.

Yet cold and infallible? One could maybe argue about cold –  it is partly in the eye of the beholder – but again, the text itself has its rights. Paul gives moisture to the dead! He does mourn his father – he only has to postpone it, due to the situation he is in. That doesn’t make him cold. It makes him tragic. He has intense friendships with Stilgar and Gurney Halleck. Near the end, he is upset by his mother’s cold shoulder. He struggles emotionally with his own role. And maybe most importantly: he loves & respects Chani deeply, in an explicitly tender way – the ending pages are proof of that. I agree Herbert doesn’t devote lots of page time to these aspects, but they are there. Clearly.

A reader is well within his or her right to think Herbert should have devoted more time to the characters’ emotions – and granted, characterization is not the book’s main focus – but the claim that Paul is cold is not how I experienced it.

One cannot argue about infallible though. Paul fails. He fails spectacularly. Yes, he dethrones the emperor, he marries the princess. But all that is just superficial pomp, not at the heart of this story. It strikes me as odd that Megan AM didn’t mention this. Paul’s failure is even double.

One: his own son is killed. It is one of the pivotal moments of the book – even without taking into account the strong emphasis Herbert puts on the importance of genes and bloodlines. More so, the death of his firstborn is one of the pivotal moments of the entire series, with possibly galactic repercussions. “He felt emptied, a shell without emotions. Everything he touched brought death and grief. And it was like a disease that could spread across the universe.” Two: Paul’s main drive in the book is to prevent the jihad, yet he fails to do so. That only becomes fully clear in the sequels, but still, it is spelled out explicitly multiple times.

Herbert didn’t write Paul as a true masculine infallible hero. He is noble-born, strong and superbly trained, yes, but he is more than that, and morally ambiguous. It is when his firstborn son dies that – maybe? – Paul embraces jihad as cosmic revenge for all the suffering he had to endure. “Something seemed to chuckle and rub its hands within him. And Paul thought: How little the universe knows about the nature of real cruelty!” Herbert doesn’t spoon-feed it to the reader. It is unclear how to interpret that italic sentence, but either way, it is one of many that makes Paul human – somebody this reader could connect to.


Before I’ll dive into a more substantial analysis, the following needs emphasis: reading Dune was even better the second time around. One part of that is that I was familiar with its world – the first half can be tough on new readers that don’t know what’s going on. Another part is that I have become more experienced as reader, seeing both the book’s literary mechanics and its philosophical implications much clearer – and because of that I appreciate it all the more.

Books that can be reread don’t hinge on novelty & surprise alone. There is no better testament to what Herbert achieved artistically. Please join me in celebrating the how & what of Dune some more!

I’ll first highlight a few technical issues: Herbert’s prose, his plotting power – including a detailed case study of the first knife fight, between Paul and Jamis. After that, I’ll zoom in on Dune‘s tragic philosophical content.

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THE ETHNIC PHENOMENON – Pierre L. Van den Berghe (1981)

The Ethnic Phenomenon

This is a tricky book to review, as it has such a thorny subject: race and ethnicity. It’s also a fairly old text, first published in 1981. Social sciences certainly gained more data since, yet dismissing this book as outdated would be a huge fallacy.

On top of its subject & age, Pierre L. Van den Berghe takes a sociobiological approach – possibly prompting fears of social Darwinism and the likes. That fear is unwarranted, as The Ethnic Phenomenon is a clear and loud refutation of any attempt at instigating hierarchies or other forms of power based on race and ethnicity.

To make it even more messy, Van den Berghe admittedly writes in a Marxist tradition, but not without offering critique on orthodox Marxism. More importantly – this needs to be stressed – Marxist thought is not the core of this book at all, and is hardly used to support his main arguments – if at all.

Still, The Ethnic Phenomenon is – given the nature of the overall subject – clearly a political book too, and it could not have been otherwise. It speaks for Van den Berghe that he is upfront about his ideological framework. His arguments & reasoning is always clearly spelled out to the reader, who can judge the merit of his thinking case by case. It would be outright stupid to dismiss the entire book just because it is writing by a leftist social scientist – I can imagine people of any political leaning agreeing to lots of what he says, as he generally makes a strong, nuanced case.

Just to get it out of the way: Van den Berghe is unambiguous about the fact that ‘race’ as a workable biological category, or a category to use for social attributions, simply does not exist. Nevertheless, there “is no denying the reality of genetic differences in frequencies (not absolutes) of alleles between human groups.” If you get worked up because of facts like that, this book is not for you.

Before I get to the actual discussion of its 301 pages, let me first say this: The Ethnic Phenomenon is a truly first-rate piece of scholarship, setting the paradigm for the thinking about this topic. It is thorough, honest and courageous, attempting to bring some clarity in a highly emotional debate. This is not an ethics treatise, but a scientific study, including 24 pages of bibliography and a 10-page index.

At the same time, the book wants “to exorcise ethnicity by trying to understand it”. I wonder if it could have been written today, in the age of #woke and keyboard outrage. Be that as it may, this is an important book, a landmark, absolutely mandatory for everybody that seriously studies the history and the contemporary effects of colonialism, racism, nationalism and ethnicity.

First I’ll try to give the gist of Van den Berghe’s thinking. Afterwards I’ll zoom in on some tidbits I found interesting, and I’ll end with a few critical notes.

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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, and the tragic lesson at the end of the Rembrandt review.


Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Gentleman

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

The back cover 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 – it’s ironic that exactly that turns out to be a false account, but more on that later.

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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