TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

TehanuSome 17 years after Le Guin completed the original Earthsea trilogy, she returns to the isle of Gont. This time she focuses on Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan, but also Sparrowhawk remains an important character, and Arren from The Farthest Shore plays a part as well.

It’s commonly known Le Guin wrote this book partly to rectify the gender imbalance in the initial trilogy, and in the fantasy genre in general. Indeed: wizards and mages are Men, and females with magical powers generally are foul witches or servile priestesses. The medieval setting of most fantasy stories is filled with patriarchy and Kings – nobody needs to be convinced of that. So yes, in today’s parlance, Tehanu is woke – but not fully woke, as I’ll try to explain.

Before I write a bit on the book’s political issues, let me try to give an overall appraisal of Tehanu, without spoiling the first three books.

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SAGA: Book One – Vaughan & Staples // HERE – McGuire (2014)

Two reviews of comics / graphic novels this time – very different in content, tone and style. Both editions were published in 2014, and both have speculative elements – Saga has nothing but, Here only very sporadically dips into the future.

The McGuire goes back to his groundbreaking 6-page 1989 comic strip of the same name. The Saga series was started in 2012, and is on hiatus for the moment. Its first trade paperback collection won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story – it is a blend of space opera & fantasy.

Saga nahhh

Here dancing

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A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE – Arkady Martine (2019)

A Memory Called EmpireArkady Martine’s debut novel just won the 2020 Hugo and is shortlisted for the Clarke, so indeed, it has all the hallmarks of what people seem to like: a picture of a sprawling throne on the cover, and a “glossary of persons, places and objects” at the end.

There’s much to like in this book, especially a “cunningly plotted” story of palace intrigue centered around the new ambassador of a mining station in the capital city of the galaxy spanning Teixcalaanli empire – an empire that loves literature and poetry, and an empire in the midst of a succession crisis.

So let me be upfront: this was an okay book, a nice book, an entertaining book, a Tor book, and I’d even recommend it if you need your contemporary space opera fix. But at the same time, it was very, very generic. Maybe that calls for a checklist?

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CHILDREN OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1976)

I’ve written a lengthy analysis of Dune, and of Dune Messiah too. My text on Dune focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Children of Dune Di Fate

“The landscape which met their gaze was beyond pity, nowhere did it pause – no hesitations in it at all.”

There is something relentless to Children of Dune. It was the most difficult hurdle yet in my project of rereading the entire series.

It is a bit of a surprise this became “the first hardcover best-seller ever in the science fiction field” and also won the 1977 Hugo, because there is undeniably truth in David Pringle’s assessment of the book being “convoluted stuff.”

There’s a paradox to this very review and how it determined my reading experience, and it has to do with that convolutedness. Because I knew I wanted to write this text, I read Children carefully – maybe too carefully, taking notes, trying to figure things out. Especially in the second half of the book, that left me gasping for air at times, unable to figure out what Herbert wanted to do, lost in the mystical ramblings about visions and futures, focusing on inconsistencies or what I thought were inconsistencies. It took a bit of joy out of reading.

At the same time, I did like the overall plot a lot, and could see Herbert had actually managed to tell yet another great story with perfect pacing, especially when the action kicked in: his characteristic style of cutting between short scenes with lots of dialogue somehow delivered the goods again. All that left me with about a 3 out of 5 stars tally, a bit in line with when I first read the series, and I then thought book 2 and 3 were the weakest of the six.

But when I started to reread (and reread and reread) all the quotes I had marked to get a better grip on the book’s difficult stuff, I actually understood more of it, and most inconsistencies dissolved. So yes, this review at times wrecked my reading – instead of just riding the flow, I focused too much on trying to understand – but in the end it also reconciled me with the book. That leaves me with a 3.5, maybe 4 star rating, because I still think Herbert could have cut back some on the mystic philosophy, without actually hurting its core.

In what follows, I first tried to write something of a review of the book: strengths, weaknesses, characters, you know the drill. I primarily focus on Alia as tragic figure, and also discuss an important thing that remains unclear & possibly inconsistent: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path.

For those that want to dive in even deeper, after that first part, I zoom in on four very specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience.

Both parts are a spoiler bonanza, but I guess this kind of writing will not appeal to those who haven’t read the books anyway.

The text is heavy with quotes, but I wrote it so that you can still follow the logic if you skip them – except once, and I’ll warn you there. The quotes are for the die-hards. I had 9504 words selected out of the book, of which I used about 6200. Add to that my own 4400 words, and abracadabra …another long read, totaling 10630 words. It is what it is, I couldn’t help it. A full, thorough discussion of the book needed those.

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THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS – John Wyndham (1951)

The Day of the TriffidsJust as I was mistaken about the content of Solaris, I had the wrong impression about John Wyndham’s classic post-apocalyptic novel as well. The title is responsible for that misconception, as The Day of the Triffids is not about triffids. Obviously aggressive & carnivorous mobile plants do play a part, but they are a sideshow. This is not the simple, verdant horror of the 1962 movie. Instead, the overall story deals with the social fall-out of another catastrophe altogether: an event in the beginning of the story that blinds nearly all humans.

The book is told by Bill Masen, who wakes up in a London hospital and discovers the vast majority of other people lost their sight overnight. A similar hospital opening was used in Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie film 28 Days Later… – and again in The Walking Dead. Boyle has acknowledged The Day of the Triffids as an inspiration, and his movie indeed has much more in common with the novel than that opening scene. It goes to show how influential Wyndham’s book has become, a huge commercial success when published, widely read by non-genre readers too.

Commercial success doesn’t imply quality, but I have to say: of all the early 60ies and 50ies science fiction I have read, this might very well be the title that feels the least dated – and that does say something about quality.

Not that its age doesn’t show at all. The book’s historical context informed its writing: Wyndham’s angst for nuclear catastrophe looms throughout the narrative, and also tensions with the USSR play a minor part. Wyndham partook in World War 2 – although how much of the fighting he has seen is unclear, serving as a cipher operator in the Normandy landings, “landing a few days after D-Day.” Continue reading

THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN – M. John Harrison (2020)

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again“Hard to know if it’s a neurosis or a survival characteristic.”

This is a tough nut to crack. You could say that I’m a Harrison fan – his latest short fiction collection You Should Come With Me Know was one of my favorite reads in 2017, and I liked the strange 2002 science fiction novel Light a lot. But aside the 15 pages of Doe Lea, I haven’t read anything else by him. The seminal Viriconium is on my TBR, as are the final 2 installments in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy began with Light. I also found a second hand copy of his 1971 debut The Committed Men – a new wave post-apocalyptic story set in the UK, and a copy of The Centauri Device, an “anti-space opera” that influenced Banks & Reynolds. I plan to read all of those, but at my current rate it will take me years. Anyhow, if you are a bit familiar with the titles I listed, you’ll notice Harrison has an impressive range – I know few speculative writers who have such a varied output.

It is 2020 today, and it is clear M. John Harrison has covered a lot of millage as a writer in the 50 years he’s been writing publicly. His first novel since 2012, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is published by Gollancz – which has published only science fiction and fantasy since its ownership changed in 1998. It’s maybe fitting Harrison’s new novel reconnects it to the company’s origin as a publisher of “high quality literature” too. The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is not science fiction. Speculative fiction could do, maybe, but I’d hesitate to use that moniker. Aside from a label that determines a potential reader’s expectations, the question of genre might not be important, were it not that Harrison seems to try and subvert every genre he writes in. A “failed allegory” perhaps?

This novel is a portrait of a lonely man and a lonely woman, both in some kind of anxious midlife crisis, both experiencing “a triumph of disconnection”, laterally entangled in some vague, batshit conspiracy, firmly embedded in London & Shropshire landscapes, sprinkled with a few weird, wrenched elements – but rest assured: those elements never dominate the story.

Harrison – undoubtly “a high-functioning romantic” like Victoria – mentions quite a few painters, paintings or prints. Aside from capriccios by Felix Kelly, and prints from John Atkinson Grimshaw and Eric Ravilious, he explicitly names The Red Rook (1948) by Gertrude Abercrombie, Sea Idyll (1887) by Arnold Böcklin, The Colossi of Memmon, Thebes, One (1872) by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner and Solar Eclipse in Venice, 6 July 1842 by Ippolito Cafi. Continue reading

SOLARIS – Stanisław Lem (1961)

Solaris Lem cover first editionAt the beginnings of my forays into science fiction, it quickly became clear Solaris was one of the key texts, and so a physical copy of the book has been on my shelves for years. There were two reasons I didn’t take it out sooner. The main thing was me having the wrong idea of what it was about. I’m not sure why, but I thought the story focused on a crew slowly growing mad, and I’d mentally labeled it something like ‘psychological horror in space’, a genre I’m not that interested in. The other reason was Steven Soderbergh’s adaption: I’d seen it in a movie theater when it came out back in 2002, and while I don’t remember any other thing about it, at the time my reaction was lukewarm at best.

It was only after a conversation in the comments to my review of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves that I realized I had the wrong idea about the book. That conversation was with Polish native Ola G, and it turns out she wrote two excellent pointers about Stanisław Lem, here and here – do click on those if you want an accessible yet fairly thorough overview of Lem. On the strength of Solaris and Ola’s posts, I have added Fiasco, The Invincible and The Cyberiad to my TBR.

Before I look a bit closer at the novel itself, a few notes on the translation. The English translation from 1970 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox was based on a French version. Not ideal, and Lem wasn’t satisfied with the result either. Sadly, it is the only available English version in print, even though Bill Johnston completed a direct translation from the original Polish in 2011 – a version Lem’s wife and son thought “captured the spirit of the original.” Johnston’s translation was released as an audio book and a Kindle edition, but a paper edition is stuck in legal limbo. I can’t say the prose was bad, but some sections felt a bit dry & lifeless, and I’m chalking that up to Cox & Kilmartin. Just to be clear: all this is no reason to not read this book – it is a deserved classic – but should you have the option: go for the Johnston version.

As in lots of Stanisław Lem’s stories, an important theme of Solaris is “the complete failure of human beings to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence”. I will not write a whole lot more about it here, as heaps of pages been written about it already. Curiously this theme is largely absent from the two latest movie adaptations, while it is central to the novel. Continue reading

RADIANCE – Carter Scholz (2002)

Radiance Scholz

Carter Scholz isn’t a prolific writer. He published a grim, realistic novella about an interstellar spaceship, Gypsy, in 2015 – one of my favorite SF reads. There’s a handful of other short fiction, and only 2 novels: 1984’s Palimpsests and this one, Radiance – an overlooked masterpiece.

Scholz doesn’t write to earn the butter on his bread, and that shows. Unlike so many authors who just churn out stuff that needs to please fandom and sales figures, he does what he wants. That results in singular fiction, and Radiance is a remarkable, brilliant, demanding novel.

Not science fiction in the speculative sense, it is a novel about science. Also the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ needs a caveat: important parts of Radiance are based in reality. It is a roman à clef set in a government lab in California, a veiled ,

centering on two nuclear physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War & start of the Dotcom Bubble, nuclear bombs & Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks, accelerationism, and the great scientific project of mankind. (quoted from Gwern’s impressive site on Radiance, that includes a free, annotated e-book edition)

I don’t normally do this, but I want to start with 2 pictures of the blurbs, because I feel they are not just the usual hyperbole taken out of context by the publisher, but really do the book justice, and, taken together, capture its spirit.

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THE GODS THEMSELVES – Isaac Asimov (1972)

The Gods ThemselvesFrom 1958 tot 1972 Asimov did not write science fiction, so The Gods Themselves was a sort of comeback, and it went on to win the Hugo, Locus & Nebula. It’s heralded as “His single finest creation” by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In 1982 Asimov himself expressed this to be his favorite science fiction novel. High praise all around.

A story in three very different parts, it is set in 2100, and deals with a possible unbalancing of the cosmos because of the Electron Pump – new technology that delivers clean, abundant energy. This unbalance might obliterate Earth.

The first part deals with the science behind it, and with the social problems inherent in doing science: it is a critique of ego before truth, and the petty competition between men. The second part deals with aliens – the first time ever Asimov wrote about aliens – in a parallel universe, aliens that are responsible for the Electron Pump. The third part is set on the moon, and is about scheming to resolve the problem.

It is a visibly constructed story: Ken MacLeod even speaks of “dialectics” in the pompous introduction to my 2012 edition, and indeed, as a construction it certainly has a charm, and Asimov’s craft is undeniable. Yet at the same time it sucks a bit of life out of it too. Wooden characters obviously don’t help that, especially not as most of the story is told through dialogue.

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UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Ubik (Peter Rauch)When I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 5 years ago, I approached it the wrong way. That novel is full of plot holes & other inconsistencies, and while I appreciated the mood, I ended up being bothered by its mushy core. I decided to not make the same mistake for Ubik, and see if a go-with-the-flow attitude would yield another reading experience.

Being who I am, I still ended up writing down numerous inconsistencies, but indeed, they did not really bother me. Maybe that is because Ubik simply is a much better novel, I don’t know: I’d have to reread Androids, and that’s not going to happen.

A bit before I started Ubik, I read a review on Calmgrove that determined my reading experience this time. It hinted at Serious Levels of Depth, and that provided the novel with lots of my credit upfront. It made me go down another rabbit hole this time: in search for truths about life & death.

For the uninitiated: Ubik is a strange novel, in which Dick draws back the curtain numerous times, only to close it a bit later on. It involves time travel – or not?, strange temporal digressions, merged states of half-life, a conflict between two psychic mutant factions, a trip to the moon and capitalist consumerism satire. An American-made Kafka: light in calories, and with a dose of cigarettes, X-Men & half-baked religion.

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THE WILD SHORE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

The Wild Shore

“You can’t teach what the world has taught you.”

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book is set for release in October this year. It’s again a climate change book, and I’m looking forward to it, even though I didn’t finish his latest, 2019’s Red Moon – I felt that was too formulaic. I’m hoping The Ministry will find somewhat of a new elan – even though KSR will always be KSR, and his debut novel The Wild Shore, is proof of that.

I guess most readers know this is part of a triptych, in which Robinson envisions three different futures for California’s Orange County, where Stan grew up. The Wild Shore is set after a nuclear war, The Gold Coast deals with rampant greed & growth, and Pacific Edge paints a utopia.

I have written lengthy analyses of Robinson before, most notably of Green Earth and New York 2140, so forgive me for keeping things a bit shorter this time – even though the small canvas of The Wild Shore is vastly superior to the shiny blitz of NY2140.

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REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

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EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

ExhalationI was conflicted about Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s much lauded first collection. There’s something about this guy: he can write – but are these really, truly stories?

So at first I decided to skip Exhalation: Stories, his second collection, published in 2019. But then I read a glowing review on Speculiction that dubbed the title story “one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written”. It also won three major awards: the Hugo, Locus and BSFA. As it is available for free on Lightspeed Magazine’s site, I decided to read just that.

It turned out to be a typical Chiang story: exquisitely crafted, good prose, convincing atmosphere, smart ideas. But sadly, for my taste, it’s also a bit too didactic, for two reasons.

It tries to convey a message – the clichéd ‘be thankful for the wonder of existence’, but more importantly, because it follows the typical Chiang template: he read some interesting stuff, and tries to mold his newfound wisdom into a story. Continue reading

THE MAN IN THE MAZE – Robert Silverberg (1969)

The Man In The MazeRobert Silverberg’s bibliography is massive. The guy wrote tons of stuff. In 1968, the year he published The Man in the Maze serialized in Worlds Of If, Silverberg released three other novels, 8 books of non-fiction and 8 short stories, according to this glowing review on Fantasy Literature. Ah, quality and quantity.

Then again, this novel is just 192 pages in a pocket edition – the good old days of brevity. Today, a story like this would be published as a novel of at least 492 pages, adding lots and lots of world building and an attempt at deep backstory for the characters. In other words: authors and publishers alike would try to give it the veneer of serious literature. The wonders of word-processing indeed – it only makes the length and depth of Dune or LOTR all the more impressive.

So, what we get in The Man in the Maze is ideas condensed to their basic form, draped in a fast paced action/mystery story to make the medicine go down. It’s snappy pulp, yes, but it has deep ambitions – or does it?

I was drawn to read more of Silverberg since I read his classic Dying Inside, a fantastic fuck off to intellectual snobbery, that even today is mistaken as serious literature with metaphors about dying. His tone just felt right.

What about The Man in the Maze?

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HOW HISTORY GETS THINGS WRONG – Alex Rosenberg (2018)

How History Gets Things WrongDarwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology – a book Alex Rosenberg published in 2006 – was one of the best books I read in 2019. It tries to marry physics & chemistry with biology, and successfully so. It’s a very dense text, and extremely interesting.

So when I learned Rosenberg had written a book about our addiction to stories, I couldn’t resist and bought it. These 291 pages are a very different read than Darwinian Reductionism: a whole lot more accessible, written for a somewhat larger audience – although this is still no pop science book. While not without problems, it is very much worth your time if you have a serious, academic interest in human behavior, theory of mind, and narrative – Rosenberg’s scope is both broad and deep.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories biggest shortcoming is its title. It’s great from a marketing point of view, but it is a bit misleading. Yes, history features, as do stories, but in the end, they are a sideshow. Rosenberg uses the fallacies of narrative history to frame his central argument, which is a refutation of the most commonly held (folk) ‘theory of mind‘. He does so mainly with recent findings from neuroscience. Let me quote Wikipedia to give you an idea of Rosenberg’s basic line of reasoning:

This work develops the eliminative materialism of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, applying it to the role ‘the theory of mind’ plays in history and other forms of story telling. Rosenberg argues that the work of Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser reveals that the “theory of mind” employed in every day life and narrative history has no basis in the organization of the brain. Evidence from evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, medical diagnosis and neural imaging reveals it is an innate or almost innate tool that arose in Hominini evolution to foster collaboration among small numbers of individuals in immediate contact over the near future, but whose predictive weakness beyond this domain reveals its explanatory emptiness.

It has been over a decade since I read something truly substantial on the neurological working of our brain, and I was surprised by the detail in the discoveries of Kandel, O’Keefe and the Mosers. Their findings about the nature of brains – ‘place cells’, ‘grid cells’ and especially the functioning of ‘sharp wave ripples‘ in how decisions happen – strengthen a materialistic, reductionist viewpoint of behavior. The chapter in which Rosenberg describes the research is truly fantastic, eye-opening and worth the prize of the book alone – but I’m sure there are other good texts about that if you only want to read about that subject. In 2000 and 2014 the research was awarded a Nobel Prize, so this is not some obscure theory – as such, it might be old news to some, but it was not to me.

It’s refreshing to read a whole lot more than the typical stuff on the experiments of Benjamin Libet and John-Dylan Haynes on the fact that our brains make decisions before our consciousness registers it – a staple in popular texts on free will and similar subjects. Mind you, this is not a book on the non-existence of free will. Rosenberg says that free will doesn’t require consciousness, indicating he sees the term a bit differently than most. Although the book doesn’t deal with it explicitly, there is a lot between the lines.

It’s also of note that the book deals extensively with representation, as a big part of Rosenberg’s argument hinges on the fact that there are no representations of desires or beliefs to be found in our brains. These play a crucial role in how we generally perceive how humans act: we do stuff because we desire something and we act on those desires based on certain beliefs about how to attain them. We think somehow representations of these beliefs and desires are found in our brains, and that our brains somehow process these desires and beliefs, and make decisions based on that. Not so, it turns out.

One more remark before the jump, a crucial one. Neural circuits in the brain do not have content or represent something indeed, but it is obvious that their material output (our speech, our writing, to a certain extent maybe our conscious thoughts as well, …) does. The brain lacks content, sure, but it forms content. I would think that you cannot treat the brain as a closed system, and that we need to take its extensions so to say into account as well.

I’m not sure what this means for Rosenberg’s overall theory. Maybe it is not much more than a matter of sharper definitions. Rosenberg talks about cell circuitry that does not ‘represent’ or ‘interpret’ etc. – but again, what about their output? Is that part of the brain as well? Or part of its representation/interpretation/aboutness?

Or maybe his main beef shouldn’t be with narrative history and the folk theory of mind that puts computation of representations in the brain, but narrative history and the folk theory of mind that presupposes rational, non-causally determined agency of human actors. The neuroscience and other points raises could easily support that. Or maybe it doesn’t have an effect on his logic at all.

In the rest of the review, I’ll talk a wee bit about the book’s most important formal problem, and end with a list of a few of the nuggets of wisdom I found.

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