THE GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

the-grace-of-kingsThe Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut. So, yes, this is my second DNF this year – the other’s here.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. I’m a huge fan of the short story collection Liu published earlier this year, and I liked his translation of The Three-Body Problem. It won the Locus First Novel, and there were a few positive reviews of bloggers whose opinion I respect.

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: clunky, crummy prose, and dialogue that’s bloated & unrealistic – fantasy world or not.

“Young man,” she mumbled after the retreating figure of Kuni Garu, “you may act lazy and foolish, but I have seen your heart. A bright and tenacious flower will not bloom in obscurity.”

or

But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.

or

Also, his double pupils always made others look away.

There’s so many words in this book. Words words words. Also, if the editors would have taken a marker and highlighted all the redundant words and phrases, the book would have looked like a syllabus from an undergrad who can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.

This book might be the best illustration I’ve come across of why an author should show and not tell – a critic’s cliché that I don’t like repeating in reviews myself, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. There are pages and pages of things explained that were already clear. Explained, repeated, and explained again. I hardly felt anything, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make it so. As a result, the action felt stale and lifeless. Strange, as Liu’s short fiction proves he can write compelling, even horrifying scenes, using poetic, precise prose. Yet his long form feels like amateur hour.


Saladin Ahmed, author of a pulp turd, calls this book “a much-needed breath of fresh air” for epic fantasy. Saga Press slapped it on the cover, but forgot The Grace Of Kings actually isn’t really fantasy. It’s a rehash of Chinese history. Ken Liu talked openly about this, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the Chu-Han contention – the conflict 2 centuries BC that led to the birth of the Han dynasty – is revelatory. The two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, are more or less Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Here’s two Wiki quotes, that will be very familiar to people who’ve read the book…

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ARMAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT – Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

img_20160914_153857047Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace was published exactly one year after Kurt Junior Vonnegut’s death on April 11, 2007. It’s a diverse collection: a moving 10 page introduction by his son Mark, a horrifically blunt 3 page letter from Kurt to his family, dated May 29, 1945 – written in Germany right after the war, a speech he was supposed to deliver on April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, and – the bulk of the book – 11 short stories, undated, ranging from 4 pages to 26 pages each. Armageddon In Retrospect is also illustrated by Vonnegut’s characteristic drawings, often including text.

The stories’ titles are as follows: Wailing Shall Be In All StreetsGreat DayGuns Before ButterHappy Birthday, 1951Brighten UpThe Unicorn TrapUnknown SoldierSpoilsJust You And Me, SammyThe Commandant’s Desk and Armageddon In Retrospect. Two of those are explicitly speculative in nature: Great Day is set in 2037 and features a time machine, and the title story is a kind of satirical alternative history featuring demonology. The other stories are generally ‘regular’ stories about war, in Vonnegut’s smooth style. Wailing Shall Be In All Streets isn’t really a story, but a straightforward account of his experience of Dresden’s bombing – one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Allied forces during World War 2.

The real value of this book aren’t really the stories. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, and some are even excellent – Spoils is haunting in its short, brutal simplicity. But the real value is the introduction, the letter, the speech, Wailing Shall Be In All Streets and a few of the illustrations. Combined they provide a look at the tormented person that’s behind the facade of witty satire. It’s not that the tragedy doesn’t shine through in his other writing – the facade is cracked, and translucent in places – but these texts provide a direct, unobstructed look.

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THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

the-physiognomyThe Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

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EUROPE IN AUTUMN – Dave Hutchinson (2014)

europe-in-autumnI didn’t make a lot of notes while reading Europe In Autumn, the first book of the Fractured Europe sequence. That’s a good sign, in this case. Dave Hutchinson doesn’t try to do anything else than write a good book: there’s no philosophical pretension, no glaringly obvious attempts at social commentary, no need to teach us readers some moral lesson. It’s just 317 pages of solid storytelling – there’s not a single secondary thing that throws this book off balance.

No message doesn’t mean this book is without politics. Set in a not so distant future Europe, political disintegration – Brexit, Grexit, Scottish nationalism – has continued, as have cutbacks in the public sector. The Global War On Terrorism rages on. Schengen is dead. What exactly constitutes a nation has become increasingly murky – yet clearer too: money & violence.

At first Europe In Autumn doesn’t seem like SF – it’s more of a spy thriller: Alan Furst was one of Hutchinson’s inspirations. A thriller that starts in Kraków, Eastern Europe, and as such has a vibe similar to a lot of Cold War stories. There’s codes, and dead drops, and fake identities, and a cut off head in a locker. We are introduced into this world via a fairly standard plot device: the training of a new spook, Rudi – the main character. As the story progresses, the plot thickens, and the speculative nature of the book increases. It is extremely well done, and Hutchinson catches his readers by surprise. To say more would spoil the fun. Continue reading

FAVORITE NON-FICTION BOOKS

My reading of non-fiction books has plummeted the last 2 years. Today, I tend to only read articles. Nevertheless, I think the listed titles will continue to have an appeal in the foreseeable future. This list excludes philosophy books, as those will get a favorite list of its own. 

Books are listed by publication year, youngest first. Click on the covers to go to the Goodreads page for the books.

 

MORAL TRIBES – EMOTION, REASON AND THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THEM – Joshua Greene (2013)

This is the best book about ethics and human behavior I’ve ever read. It combines insights from biology and philosophy in a great way. It’s up to date, written in a lucid, crisp prose, and generally even fun. You don’t have to have scientific or philosophical background to understand it, Greene has written a self-contained book, but it is nonetheless important and might even be revelatory for people who do have a large knowledge of both fields. Maybe the most important book on this list, as it also offers solid advice for shaping politics.

 

POWER SYSTEMS: CONVERSATIONS ON GLOBAL DEMOCRATIC UPRISINGS AND THE NEW CHALLENGES TO U.S. EMPIRE – Noam Chomsky (2012)

Interviews David Barsamian had with Chomsky between 2010-2012. Fairly recent, with a broad scope. The focus in this collection is on American imperialism/capitalism and the failing of democracy. As Chomsky is an icon of progressive thought, this short book (under 200 pages) should be an obligatory read for anyone interested in contemporary politics, economy and world affairs. The interview form makes it not as dense and difficult as some of Chomsky’s other publications, but it is still chockfull of convincing arguments & facts. Especially Kim Stanley Robinson fans should take note.

 

THE FLEXIBLE PHENOTYPE – A BODY-CENTRED INTEGRATION OF ECOLOGY, PHYSIOLOGY, AND BEHAVIOUR  –  Theunis Piersma & Jan A. Van Gils (2011)

This is the best hard science book I’ve read in the last decade. It’s self-contained, and not that difficult for a non-specialist. The main focus is on the flexibility of the phenotype, as the title suggests. Eye-opening stuff.

I couldn’t do a better job than the blurb from Oxford University Press, even though it is a bit heavy-handed: “The Flexible Phenotype attempts a true synthesis of physiology, behavior, and ecology by developing an empirical argument that describes the intimate connections between phenotypes and their environments. It portrays an ecological angle to the rapidly growing extended synthesis in evolutionary biology that incorporates developmental processes, self-organization, and the multiple dimensions of inheritance. The book starts with a synthesis of the principles guiding current research in ecophysiology, functional morphology, and behavioral ecology. Each aspect is illustrated with the detailed results of empirical work on as wide a range of organisms as possible. The integrated story of the flexible phenotype is woven throughout the book on the basis of the authors’ long-term research on migrant shorebirds and their invertebrate prey.”

 

THE ATLAS OF THE REAL WORLD: MAPPING THE WAY WE LIVE – Danny Dorling, Mark Newman & Anna Barford (2008)

In this book “sophisticated software combined with comprehensive analysis of every aspect of life represents the world as it really is. Digitally modified maps depict the areas and countries of the world not by their physical size but by their demographic importance on a vast range of topics.” It has 366 maps, with topics as different as fuel use, alcohol consumption, population & malaria.

There’s an excellent free website with the source material. The site even has 696 maps, and has more up-to-date data, so you don’t really need to buy the book at all… http://www.worldmapper.org/

 

PRIMATES AND PHILOSOPHERS: HOW MORALITY EVOLVED – Frans de Waal (2006)

THE APE AND THE SUSHI MASTER: CULTURAL REFLECTIONS OF A PRIMATOLOGIST – Frans de Waal (2001)

When one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters in Green Earth talks about humans being from the savanna, that sounds familiar because of I’ve read quite a lot of Frans De Waal, probably the most prominent primatologist alive. His Chimpanzee Politics (1982) was revolutionary for the field. To me, the biological outlook proved to be a revelation and still is something that’s liberating when talking about ethics, behavior and society. At the same time he proves time and time again that the gap between animals and humans isn’t nearly as wide as we tend to believe. De Waal’s prose is accessible, even witty at times.

A lot of De Waal’s work has some overlap, so I could have just as well listed Our Inner Ape: A Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (2005). I haven’t read his more recent books The Age Of Empathy – Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society (2009) and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), but I’m sure they’ll be good entry points too.

 

THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: SPACE, TIME AND THE TEXTURE OF REALITY – Brian Greene (2003)

The best and most complete book I’ve read on time, space, quantum physics, Einstein, superstrings, black holes, subatomics, the Higgs boson, the big bang, &cetera. You don’t need previous knowledge to read this book, but it isn’t an easy read. There’s not a lot of math or formulas, but you do need your brain to handle all the dense information. Well written, smooth, with the occasional entertaining anecdote.

The basic question it tries to solve is why time has a direction, whereas there is nothing in physics which seems to dictate that. Using that angle, the entire history of the field passes through the book’s 500 plus pages.

 

THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD: A BIOGRAPHY  – Barnaby Rogerson  (2003)

Let me just quote Jason Webster in The Guardian: “Scholarly works on Muhammad have tended to bog themselves down in arguments over sources, or new theories cunningly devised to undermine their rivals in the field. While obviously knowing his subject inside out, Rogerson has cleverly avoided this trap, concentrating instead on the tale itself, freeing up the flow of knowledge blocked by the academic approach. Some will scoff, others will simply ignore it, but the book is designed for the general audience, not for university dons. If, as the medieval Arab philosopher Al-Ghazali suggested, people oppose things because they are ignorant of them, then this is an important book, and couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.”

 

BIOLOGY, EVOLUTION AND HUMAN NATURE  – Timothy Goldsmith & William Zimmerman (2001)

The titles says it all, but the stress is definitely on the first word. Certain parts are quite technical and heavy on chemistry, but you can’t beat this if you want the basics of life explained thoroughly. It has a lot of illustrations and a broad reach, from molecular biology to nervous systems to human culture.

It’s a modular book, so if you’re not interested in a certain (sub)section, you can just skip it.

 

DEMONIC MALES – APES AND THE ORIGINS OF HUMAN VIOLENCE – Richard Wrangham & Dale Peterson (1996)

Fantastic book. Its basic question is why humans use violence against each other, and are pretty unique in the animal kingdom in doing so. Its approach is quite broad, and after a few chapters it starts comparing us to the other three great apes. The answer is a surprising combination of biology and geography that influences society and behavior.

Both eye-opening and entertaining!

 

FORCES IN MOTION: THE MUSIC AND THOUGHTS OF ANTHONY BRAXTON – Graham Lock (1989)

Revelatory book on American composer, multi-instrumentalist, saxophone virtuoso and musical theorist Anthony Braxton. Braxton is a seminal figure in the world of jazz and contemporary music, and was the very first to release a solo saxophone album in 1969 – fully improvised nonetheless. Graham Lock recounts his travels with Braxton’s classic quartet in Britain in 1985. The book also features interviews with Braxton and the band. Insightful and at times funny & heartfelt, it is a must read for any Braxton fan, and will surprise any other serious lover of the avant-garde. Forces In Motion offers a way into the often murky and dense thoughts of one of the great musical innovators of the 20th century.

 

– DUTCH ONLY –

ALS GOD SPREEKT  – Geert Lernout (2005)

Een boek over het ontstaan van de grote monotheistische godsdiensten, dat focust op het ontstaan en de geschiedenis van De Bijbel, de Koran en het Boek van Mormon.

Erg interessant en heel breed van opzet, met heel veel randinformatie uit de algemene (cultuur)geschiedenis.

 

EEN BEKNOPTE GESCHIEDENIS VAN HET BOEK – Geert Lernout (2004)

De titel zegt het al. Opnieuw heel erg breed van opzet, waardoor je niet alleen een goed zicht krijgt op de geschiedenis van het boek, maar op grote delen van de menselijke ontwikkeling: het begint bij de ontwikkeling van het schrift, en focust op de laatste 5 eeuwen. Erg, erg vlot geschreven.

 

Heel wat van de boeken uit de lijst in het Engels zijn ook in het Nederlands vertaald, met name die van Frans de Waal, Brian Greene, Barnaby Rogerson en Richard Wrangham & Dale Peterson.

THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS – Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)

The Memory Of WhitenessThe Memory Of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s third book, and from what I can gather his most philosophical. In it, he tries to tie a few threads of thought together: how determinism ties in with quantum physics and free will; art as representation of reality; how human thinking corresponds with reality & direct and indirect kinds of knowledge. The device KSR uses to connect all this is music.

The Memory Of Whiteness is philosophical musings first, and story second. I don’t think it has aged particularly well, and I don’t think it has a lot to offer to people that are already familiar with the topics I listed above – and I don’t mean as familiar like a CERN scientist, but familiar in a Quantum Physics For Dummies kinda way. I’m not sure how well known the general outlines of quantum physics were back in the 1980ies, but today those outlines are pretty much common knowledge to people with a healthy interest in their reality and a library card.

The notion of indeterminacy on a subatomic level has been a veritable feast for some philosophers of the postmodern ilk: an electron’s speed can’t be measured at the same time as its spin! Nothing is certain!! What we feel has been proven by hard science!!! Praise Heisenberg!!!! It went so far that people thinking philosophically about truth and representation – and that means nearly everybody writing theory about the arts, as most (if of not all) art is grounded in representation, as also non-representative art stems from representative predecessors – needed to become familiar with the Quantum. Of course, all this was quite overblown. It’s not because some subatomic processes are strange and weird that our Newtonian world – still the only world we live in – all of a sudden becomes unknowable and undetermined.  Still, serious writers and serious philosophers needed to opine about Schrödinger’s cat and the possible existence of the Higgs boson, and Einstein’s dictum that ‘God doesn’t play dice’ was made fun of, even in works of popular culture that needed a claim on depth.

Kim Stanley Robinson clearly wasn’t a fool, not even back in those days. He saw through this mirage of uncertainty, and envisioned a world that was beyond these debates.

Newtonian physics is deterministic. It is true that it fits into the larger framework of the probabilistic system of quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics fits into the larger framework of Holywelkin physics; and Holywelkin physics is again deterministic.

Holywelkin is a fictional scientist, and The Memory Of Whiteness is set in 3229 AD – it chronicles a tour of humanity’s most important musician/composer throughout the solar system.  Continue reading

THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (2016)

The Medusa ChroniclesI fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.

Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysCentury RainPushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.


Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!

I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.

Exhibit A.
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