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

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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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LUNA: WOLF MOON – Ian McDonald (2017)

Luna Wolf MoonLuna: New Moon was one of my best reads of 2015 – a Shakespearian feud set on a near future moon that felt both fresh & glossy, and harsh & sprawling. If you haven’t read it, go check it out.

At the time we were led to believe it to be the first of a duology, but it turns out McDonald decided to write a trilogy after all.

I’m not sure that decision paid off. It’ll probably pay off in terms of total copies sold, but artistically, Luna: Wolf Moon has some problems. Not that you shouldn’t read it. If you liked New Moon, you’ll enjoy Wolf Moon too. But while overall solid & fun, it simply isn’t an as good a book. Not even close.

Writing trilogies is tricky, especially if they are one story, multiple volumes. I feel, ideally, every volume should have its own voice, or, at least, should bring something new to the table. Otherwise, the decision to go for multiple volumes published some months or years apart is only motivated by practicalities and commercial interests, not by artistic considerations.

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BEYOND APOLLO – Barry Malzberg (1972)

beyond apolloBarry N. Malzberg’s most famous work, Beyond Apollo, has an air of controversy to it. When it won the first ever John W. Campbell award in 1973, some considered it an insult to Campbell, as Beyond Apollo lacks the positivity and wonder associated with Campbell’s strain of space exploring SF. It also features a huge amount of sex, a protagonist with mental health issues and a plot that is unresolved.

All that still is enough for some contemporary Goodreads reviewers to express their disgust with all the “mechanical sex, misogyny and closet-homosexuality”. They simply pan the novel as just random “nonsense”, “bizarre” and probably fueled by “LSD”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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