Author Archives: bormgans

INCANDESCENCE – Greg Egan (2008)

Incandescence egan“All I learnt in the void was that our best guess so far is certainly wrong.”

While not totally unfamiliar with Greg Egan – I’ve read the brilliant Schild’s Ladder, and his early Quarantine – I did start Incandescence with the wrong expectations.

The blurb of the British 2009 Gollancz paperback promises something akin to space opera:

A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the Amalgam, a vast, cooperative meta-civilisation, and the Aloof, the silent occupiers of the galactic core. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but travellers intrepid enough can take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy’s central bulge.

Rakesh has waited all his life for adventure to come calling. When he meets a traveller who claims she was woken by the Aloof mid-journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to hunt down the uncharted world from which the meteor came, deep in the Aloof’s territory. 

Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a translucent world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. They live on the margins of a rigidly organised society, seeking to decipher the subtle clues that might reveal the true nature of the Splinter. In fact, their world is in danger of extinction, and as the evidence accumulates, Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

As Rakesh gradually uncovers the history of the lost DNA world, his search leads him to startling revelations about the Splinter – and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.”

I’ve quoted it in full, because it is striking because of two things: Egan’s own rigorous ethics concerning book jackets (see my review of Schild’s Ladder for the full anecdote), and his scathing reply to a review of Incandescence by Adam Roberts in Strange Horizons. Let me try to explain, and provide my own review of sorts by doing so.

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ROADSIDE PICNIC – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

Roadside Picnic Sarah OlsonA quick write-up this time, of a rather short book – 193 pages. I’ve read the new 2012 translation of Olena Bormashenko, which includes a 3-page foreword by Le Guin (okay, but not essential at all), and an excellent afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the history of the novel’s publication in Russia. The book was altered under pressure of the censors at the time, and it’s interesting to read a bit on the mechanics of that, just as Boris’ detached tone about the affair is of note – basically, he points out that all those petty bureaucrats are dead and forgotten, so why dwell on the past too long? The text in this edition is how the Strugatsky brothers intended it to be.

My first attempt of reading something by the Strugatskies wasn’t successful – I quickly abandoned Hard To Be a God because I found it too transparent – but felt I should try another of their titles nonetheless. I’ve been drawn to this particular book because of M. John Harrison’s excellent Nova Swing, which takes the basics of Roadside Picnic as a foundation for its own story.

The shared premises is the same: mysterious aliens visited for a while and left behind bits of unknown technology and debris in the zone where they visited. That zone also became a bit ‘strange’ because of it. Some people make it their living of illegally searching for alien artifacts inside the zone, risking their lives in the process.

There are some glowing reviews of Roadside Picnic online (like this one on Speculiction) and overall this seems a well-loved book, that’s also being taken very serious as Literature. The fact that it was the inspiration for Stalker, the 1979 movie by Tarkovsky undoubtedly added to the book’s fame and prestige.

My own thoughts after the jump.

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THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN – Gene Wolfe (1980-83)

The Shadow of the Torurer (Maitz without title)This is a 5500 word essay on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.



The first time I read The Book of the New Sun must have been somewhere in 2011, and it has remained a strong favorite in my mind ever since, easily top 5 ever. As The Folio Society recently published a more or less affordable version of their limited edition treatment of the book, I decided that was a good excuses to whip out too much cash on a book I already owned, and reread the entire thing.

Much has been written about Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, and I have no intention whatsoever to add to certain debates surrounding these volumes – on the contrary: to me these debates miss an important point, as I will try to explain later.

Deep down I was reluctant to start the reread. My other encounters with Wolfe’s prose haven’t always been fully successful, and I feared The Book of the New Sun to be a lesser affair than I remembered. I have to admit that to a certain extent is was – but that is not to say it became a bad book: I still rank it among my favorite reads.

Before I’ll get to the bulk of this review, first some introductionary remarks to those unfamiliar with the book.


The Book of the New Sun was first published as 4 separate volumes: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Two volume editions have been published as Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, and single volume editions have been published as The Book of the New Sun, and also as Severian of the Guild.

When I started rereading it, I intended to review only The Shadow of the Torturer, and then turn to some other books before starting the second volume. But it quickly dawned on me such a review wouldn’t do the novel justice. A review of Shadow might have worked if it had been my first read, but since my memories of the other volumes – not perfect, mind you – had such a gravitational pull, I could only finish the entire thing before writing this. That is not unlike Wolfe himself, who intended to write a novella, but when is was done it turned out to be a tetralogy, only finishing the final draft of the first book when he had finished the second drafts of the remaining 3 parts.

Because he was pressured by his publisher, Wolfe published a coda to this story in 1987, The Urth of the New Sun. I will reread that too someday, but I feel I shouldn’t take it into account for this review, as Wolfe didn’t conceive of it while he wrote this. The same goes for the two related series The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun – published between 1993-1996 and 1999-2003. I won’t take their subject matter into account either: they weren’t part of the quadruple canon, and as such can’t really be used to weigh the original artistic merit. I feel that lots of the interpretations of TBotNS based on certain things in the later series could be considered a form of Hineininterpretierung.

Those who dread being sucked into a 12 book ‘Solar Cycle’, such fear is unwarranted. The Book of the New Sun was conceived as a stand-alone, and if you like it a lot, there’s no harm in reading the coda, Urth. But Long Sun and Short Sun are generally considered works of lesser quality – except by hardcore Wolfe fans – and their main stories are only very tangentially related. I’ve read the first 3 of Long Sun (reviews here), but chances are I’ll never start its final book.


The Book of the New Sun is a dying earth novel, set on Urth, a far-future version of Earth, or an Earth before our own, in some different time cycle. It’s a world that has lost most scientific abilities, and resembles a society straight out of a fantasy novel – even though remnants of technology exist, and certain of the upper classes still have access to flying ships. In the backdrop of the story, there are aliens that try to enslave humanity, and yet other aliens that want to help our race to revive the sun, which has dimmed to such an extent stars are even visible by day. The moon’s light is green, as it has been terraformed in the past, but humans forgot when and how, and can’t get there anymore.

It is the first-person narrative of Severian, a young man belonging to the guild of the torturers – “The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence”, who is disgraced and exiled, and ultimately “backs into the throne” seemingly by accident, and turns out to be something of a messiah. Like in other works by Wolfe, Severian is an unreliable narrator, but more on that in a minute.

The Book of the New Sun is considered by many as one of the towering achievements of science fiction or science fantasy, and I’ve read serious people putting it on the same level as Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. It won lots of awards, and tends to be found near the top of many lists of best speculative fiction. Word has it that this weird and strange book can only be fully understood after three readings.

So what to write about this illustrious work?

I will talk first about its religious themes – Wolfe was a devout Catholic – and how the question whether this book can be enjoyed by agnostics or atheists too ties into the trap that Wolfe has set, a trap that has ensnared many of those writing New Sun exegesis on message boards, Facebook groups, mailing lists and Reddit.

As an intermezzo, I’ve written a short passage about Severian’s outlook on free will, and I’ll end with some thoughts on my rereading experience, and my current appraisal of New Sun – will I read it a third time?

This entire text is spoiler free.

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2 BOOKS ON BRAINS: ‘HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS’ (2020) & ‘BEAUTIFUL BRAIN: THE DRAWINGS OF SANTIAGO RAMON Y CAJAL’ (2017)

I’m rereading The Book of the New Sun at the moment, and while I first thought to just read Shadow of the Torturer, it felt wrong to write a review of the first volume only, so I’m going to finish all 4 volumes and then write on the entire thing.

That means no new speculative book review for now, but two very different books on the brain. First a scientific account of rationality and neurobiologic algorithmic decision making, after that an art-science hybrid: a catalogue of historical pen and ink drawings by neuroanatomist Cajal, which includes a biography and some other text on the matter.


HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS – Thomas Boraud (2020)

This is the English edition of the 2015 French publication Matière à décision, but updated with new data, some mistakes corrected and also partly rewritten structurally – with a new chapter added as the most striking change. As such, I’d very much call this a 2020 book indeed, and that’s of note in an ever evolving field.

The basic question this book tries to answer is whether neurobiological science supports the case for rational decision-making. It does so by using a bottom-up approach, “beginning with the neural matter and tracing the journey of how decision-making might have emerged from the physicochemical interactions between its components.”

This book is a strange hybrid. It both tries to give a short overview of the philosophical debate and the history of the science involved – including a bit of behavioral economy – and it tries to answer the question using an algorithmic model based on actual vertebrate brain science. Continue reading

CONTINGENCY AND CONVERGENCE : TOWARD A COSMIC BIOLOGY OF BODY AND MIND – Russell Powell (2020)

First a general overview & appraisal of the book, and after that there’s a fairly lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of nuggets of wisdom I want to keep on record, and those could be interesting for you too.


For starters, the summary on the back: “In this book, Russell Powell investigates whether we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere. Weaving together disparate philosophical and empirical threads, Powell offers the first detailed analysis of the interplay between contingency and convergence in macroevolution, as it relates to both complex life in general and cognitively complex life in particular. If the evolution of mind is not a historical accident, the product of convergence rather than contingency, then, Powell asks, is mind likely to be an evolutionarily important feature of any living world?”

Or, as the MIT website states it in short: “Can we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere?”

The book doesn’t presuppose a lot of working knowledge: Powell takes care to explain all the concepts and the history of science & philosophy one needs to understand his arguments. As such it is perfectly self-contained, BUT, mind you: this is hardcore stuff, it is not a popular science book at all. It has 280 pages of carefully and tightly argued text, there’s not a lot of redundancy, not even on the sentence level, and as such keeping a search engine at hand while reading this is no luxury. Continue reading

THE GOLD COAST – Kim Stanley Robinson (1988)

I’ve read people saying Kim Stanley Robinson can’t write characters. Well, they for sure haven’t sampled enough of his oeuvre to make such a bold claim.

Just as The Wild Shore – the first part of a loosely connected triptych, each of which can be easily read as a standalone – The Gold Coast is a book about characters & communities. It made me tear up once, and the central story hinges on the dynamics between a father and a son, and between that father and his cooperate boss.

The California trilogy might be KSR’s most autobiographical work – at least the setting is, as he moved to Orange County when he was 2. Stan was 34 when he wrote it, and it is very much a book about saying goodbye to late adolescence – the extended period of drugs, booze and parties, being twentysomething before settling down.

I’m not sure how much of an epicure KSR is or was, but Jim McPherson, the main character, is an idealist – something he shares with his inventor. McPherson teaches languages for a living, and KSR taught freshman composition. McPherson is also a struggling writer, writing poetry and history, trying to come to grips with postmodernism, something I’m sure Robinson had to do as well under the auspices of his PhD mentor Frederic Jameson – a giant of pomo literary criticism.

In an excellent 2012 interview in the LA Review of Books, Robinson confirmed the partly autobiographical nature of The Gold Coast, implies his father was a military engineer too, and even goes as far to call it “the story of that time and place, Orange County in the 1970s, in a way I don’t think any other novel has.”

The Gold Coast was nominated for the Campbell, Locus, and BSFA. Set in 2027 in Southern California, “where greed and the population had run rampant” it could be considered Robinson’s version of a dystopian cyberpunkish novel – with caveats obviously. More on all that after the jump.

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THE DROWNED WORLD – J.G. Ballard (1962)

The Drowned World (Powers)“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

At times, I read up on books while reading them, and this time my explorations of other reviews significantly colored my reading, in particular the review of BlackOxford on Goodreads.

In that review, BlackOxford develops a mostly symbolic reading of the text that accuses Ballard of racism. The arguments are interesting, but the reading might be reductive. On the other hand, Ballard seems to encourage this interpretative method of searching for latent symbolism.

Before I will add my two cents to the debate – and I’ll keep it short – let me do the non-political part of the review. Continue reading

AN INFINITE SUMMER – Christopher Priest (1979)

An Infinite Summer (first edition)An Infinite Summer‘s first cover, pictured here, is kind of fitting to this short story collection. The other covers, at the end of this review, don’t really do it justice. Christopher Priest has a sophistication to his writing that’s more akin to regular literature than scifi of the pulpy kind.

My first encounter with Priest was Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie adaptation of The Prestige. I also read 1974’s Inverted World, but that was at the onset of my explorations of SF, and while I liked the novel, I expected the wrong things of it, and I ended up writing a short review that was ultimately negative because of an ending that was ludicrous from a realistic point of view. In other words: I applied Hard SF standards to a novel that was at heart more poetic than scientific.

I’ve always felt that I should give Priest another chance, and when I found An Infinite Summer a few weeks ago in a second hand store, I knew it was going to be my next read. 2011’s The Islanders has been on my TBR for a few months too, but I thought this collection would be a better introduction to the world of the Dream Archipelago – because it was published way earlier, and because I liked the idea of short stories as an introduction to what seems like a fragmented concept to begin with.

Not that all of the 5 stories/novellas in this book are considered Dream Archipelago material: Whores, The Negation and The Watched are – and they are also collected in the 1999 The Dream Archipelago collection. Palely Loitering isn’t a DA story, and while the title story An Infinite Summer is considered to be one by some, it doesn’t mention the DA in the story itself, it’s not part of the later collection, and Priest himself doesn’t frame it as such in the introduction to this volume either – while he explicitly does so for the three I mentioned.

Both “Whores” and “The Watched” are from a loosely linked cycle of stories I think of as “the Dream Archipelago” (“The Negation” also fits into the series, although in a slightly different way.) The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. (…) There is very little in common between each one, except perhaps the words “Dream Archipelago” themselves.

I’ll first give a few general remarks about the collection, and afterwards zoom in and say a few words on each story.

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TWO BOOKS ON TURRELL (2013 & 2018)

For those that need an introduction to American light artist James Turrell (°1943), I’ve included two short YouTube documentaries at the very end – both worth viewing if you’re familiar with the man too. This post will be part book review, part essay.

Turrell rose to general public fame as Drake stole his visual approach for the video of Hotline Bling in 2015, and when I visited a site-specific installation of Turrell in a burial chapel on the grounds of Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin in July 2016, the crowd was massive, and, surely, some teenagers took out their smartphone and filmed each other making gestures like Drake in his clip. Regardless of the crowd, the experience was spiritual and uplifting – about 40 minutes of carefully programmed shifting lights to be started at the onset of dusk. Luckily, most teenagers didn’t have the meditative stamina to sit it out fully, so we had the place to ourselves at the end. After the book reviews I’ve included some pictures I took, and one that a friend took featuring some other friends and yours truly in summer outfits.

For starters, a book from my favorite art book list I posted in 2017 – I included it back then on the strength of the visuals, but I hadn’t fully read it. The second book is a bit more recent, published in 2018, and has much less text.

“My work is about how we construct reality. The real illusion is that we aren’t aware of how we give reality to things. We have awarded them concreteness of reality and are unaware of how we’ve done that.”


JAMES TURRELL: A RETROSPECTIVE – Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim (2013)

Turrell cover James Turrell: A Retrospective was published for a major retrospective exhibition in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Guggenheim in New York. The retrospective also traveled to Jerusalem and Canberra. It has 304 pages and 250 illustrations, in a lavishly published hardback.

I always wonder whether people that haven’t experienced Turrell firsthand can truly get the idea of how revelatory & moving his work actually is. I’ve been luckily to live nearby one of his Skyspaces in Antwerp, and catch the Turrell exhibition in De Pont in Tilburg in 2015, as well as his permanent installation in that Berlin cemetery.

Art books are rarely substitutes for the real deal, but it is doubly so for Turrell, as the spatial aspects of perceiving light are so hard to translate in a 2D medium. As such, my experience of these books obviously is colored by my real world experience with Turrell. Having said that, this book does a spectacular job, and it shines especially in the accompanying text – essays and an interview. It made me realize that I’ve only seen a glimpse of his oeuvre, and his work is much richer and more diverse than I thought. Continue reading

NOVA SWING – M. John Harrison (2006)

Nova Swing“For the detictive, he thought, nothing is ever only itself.”

There’s a provoking quote by Harrison floating around on the web, although the original post seems deleted:

“The writer – as opposed to the worldbuilder – must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive – is it possible to receive – a fictional text as an operating manual? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the – purely functional – act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.”

I guess it’s from the same post as this quote:

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.”

Obviously this is all taste, and not law. It’s also no clear cut dichotomy, as there’s some worldbuilding in Nova Swing too, like in all other Harrison books I’ve read and will read. But as a piece of polemic poetics, Harrison succeeds to point sharply at one end of a spectrum.

It also says something about the difficulties I encountered while reading Nova Swing – a book that taxes the reader in an above average way. I had to pay attention, and while things got easier throughout to a certain extent, the first part of the finale was dense again, filled with sentences and scenes to reread and ponder. Not surprising, as it is set in “a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange”, a part of the so-called Kefahuchi Tract that fell to the surface of the planet Saudade in 2444AD – an age in which humans have spread out in the galaxy using FTL technology. Continue reading

TAU ZERO – Poul Anderson (1970)

Tau ZeroIn my attempt to read a decent sample of the classics and enhance my understanding of the history of science fiction, Tau Zero was a logical choice, as it is heralded as one of the prime examples of hard SF. Moreover, I hadn’t read any Poul Anderson – both a science fiction as a fantasy Grand Master and winner of numerous awards, most notably seven Hugos and three Nebulas.

Tau Zero follows the crew of a colonization vessel launched from Earth, aiming to reach a nearby star, without FTL. But naturally something goes wrong, and the ship can’t perform the planned deceleration during the second half of the journey. On top of that, they are subject to time dilation. All and all, the setup is great, and Anderson has plenty of building blocks for an exciting story.

Similarly, the predicament the protagonists find themselves in potentially offers an examination of some fundamental questions about the purpose and significance of human lives.

Sadly, Tau Zero was a bit of a letdown on either front. I’m having a hard time coming up with a solid angle for the remainder of this review, so I’ll just do a quicky, and use a bulleted list. Easier for you to read as well: win-win!

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THE HAIR-CARPET WEAVERS – Andreas Eschbach (1995, transl. 2005)

The Hair-Carpet Weavers (Eschbach Jessalyn Brooks)This book deserves to become a classic, and it is fitting that Penguin published it as part of its Classics SF series in 2020. The debut of German author Andreas Eschbach, The Hair-Carpet Weavers was translated in English in 2005, and first published as The Carpet Makers.

The Hair-Carpet Weavers is the better title, as it captures something of the strangeness this 314-page novel possesses – still, don’t be alarmed by that, New Weird this is not, not at all. On the contrary, it has a very solid, grounded feel.

While not fully perfect, the book is a gem that combines Le Guinish calm, mythical storytelling as in Earthsea, with a space opera plot that nods at Herbert and has the outrageous imagination of Iain M. Banks. I’d say this would appeal to both science fiction and fantasy readers, and the beginning of the book also reminded me a bit of Piranesi, another gem that was still fresh in my mind.

It also features a formal narrative approach I have rarely encountered, and definitely not as honed to perfection as it is here.

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GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1981)

This is the 4th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books, and it became yet another lengthy text of about 8,720 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

My text on Dune itself 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. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things.

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.



God Emperor of Dune (Brad Holland)Before I’ll zoom in on Leto’s conceptual character, and questions about prescience, the nature of the Golden Path and the question whether the world portrayed in this book is mystic or mechanical, I’ll try to write a proper review of sorts. If you’re also interested in the more philosophical matters, or in the various inconsistencies introduced in this novel, read on afterwards.


How to assess God Emperor of Dune in the series? In my recollection I thought Dune was by far superior to the 2nd and the 3rd book, but when I finished the series, I thought book 5 and 6 were the best. God Emperor is the only book I don’t have specific memories about anymore.

So far, my rereads have more or less confirmed my feelings: Messiah is dumbed down to the point it became bothersome – even though the emotions saved it in the end; the intrigues and Alia’s character make Children an above average read, even though conceptually it is a bit of a mess, and Herbert didn’t achieve the same purity of message as he did with Dune itself.

Similarly, after rereading God Emperor, I simply don’t have very outspoken feelings about it. It was an okay read, and by any standards Leto is a remarkable character – maybe the strangest character I have ever encountered in fiction. That by itself is an achievement.

The novel is often portrayed as heavy on philosophy, and I can understand what people mean by that, but I’d rather say it is sprinkled with tidbits that make you think, instead of calling this a philosophical book. Often these passages are mildly intellectually stimulating, but at the same time, taken at face value, generally take the form of sweeping generalizations about humanity. Because they often lack nuance they more than once made me shrug – Herbert’s attempt at Nietzschean aphorisms do succeed once in a while, but they don’t fully compensate for the main structural weakness of this book. Continue reading

IN DEFENSE OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS

Following an exchange of thoughts on a worst reads of 2020 post on Re-enchantment Of The World, I’ve decided to write a bit about writing negative reviews, and the abundance of positive reviews one encounters.


I’m sure some of the more critical readers of this blog are at times baffled by all the positive reviews they see for – let’s be frank here – generic, uninspired produce. That is very noticeable on Goodreads, where new titles often harvest +4 scores quickly, and also in the blogosphere negative reviews are fairly rare.

That most books published today are generic needs no proof. Still, let me refer you to this brilliant piece on Speculiction, that looks at book titles of Fantasy published around 2018. The proliferation of accessible word-processing, cheap laptop computers and ever better and cheaper printing methods have flooded the market.

Everybody with a creative inclination and enough spare time can write a book nowadays. Our culture seems to laud free expression and believing in your own, unique self, and that seems to trick lots of people into thinking they are artists too. The dedication of Herbert and Tolkien to write their big books by hand or on a typewriter simply isn’t necessary anymore today. Editing has never been more easy.

But while Joseph Beuys claimed that Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler in the 60ies, his beef was with the fact that not everybody could study at an art academy in Germany at the time. So rather than a call for everybody to start writing books, Beuys’ ostensibly democratic dictum should rather be read as a call to learn how to write books first.

Pulp and generic writing have always existed, but whereas the pulp around 1960 was published in short books of about 140 pages, today it seems growth is an inescapable law for books too – new titles averaging 450 pages instead, often as a part of a series. While they have a cultural veneer, big publishers are in the sales business first and foremost: selling more volume = more profit.

I could add e-readers, self-publishing and free blogging as factors, but the gist is clear: the speculative fiction reader is overwhelmed by new titles this day and age.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, by the way. I have followed the metal scene actively since the early 90ies, and also in metal there is an exponential proliferation of bands, albums, releases. For fringe genres like black or death metal there were only a handful of labels, and one could more or less keep up with everything released if one was so inclined and had the money or enough tapes to trade. But with success comes a bandwagon, and somewhere between 1995 and 2000 things mushroomed.

Similar causes are easily pointed at here as well, and technology is a big part of it: everybody can make a very decent home studio with just a laptop and one mic. Top notch recording & mixing software like Audacity and Bandcamp are free. Designing a decent album cover similarly isn’t that hard anymore as it was in the early days of MS Paint or xeroxed fanzines. On top of all that, Bandcamp and others have solved the problem of distribution. 

That leaves marketing as the sole problem – both for the aspiring metal band, as the big publisher of speculative fiction. And as technology, the internet and free time steadily become more available in developing countries too, the pool of creative humans becomes bigger and bigger with each passing day. 

Enter negative reviews. Continue reading

2020 FAVORITES

The pandemic freed up time, so I read 40 titles in 2020, 14 more than last year. I won’t make too much promises about what I’ll read in the coming months, but I will continue my reread of the Dune series – God Emperor should be the next review I post. I’ll also continue to explore Greg Egan’s work, and the work of Antwerp author J.M.H. Berckmans.

As for art books, I’m still reading on Picasso & Rembrandt – we’ll see if that gets translated into posts. I’ll try to squeeze in some of the Becher, Turrell and Twombly I promised last year, but I also want to read books on Jean Fouquet and Hockney. I’ll continue to read other non-fiction too, I’m currently tackling Contingency and Convergence – Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russel Powell, a joy so far. Should be of interest to any hard SF authors imagining alien life.


A bit of blog stats for those of you who might be interested in such a thing. I’ve had a significant increase of traffic, with 22.971 views in 2020, and 13.032 visitors – about 8.000 and 4.300 more than in 2019.

The most successful post of 2020 was about Dune Messiah, garnering 675 views. Children of Dune comes in second with 501 views. The Ministry for the Future – posted only 2 months ago – closes the top 3 with 363 views.

Most read reviews so far are those for Recursion (2.124 views since published), The Dosadi Experiment (1.212 views) and New York 2140 (1.097 views). Also still going strong (+800 views) are posts on The Wandering Earth, Green Earth, The Algebraist and Uprooted. There are 23 posts with over 500 views in total now, 6 of which are about Frank Herbert books.

A big thank you to everyone who has read, liked, commented or linked. All the best to you and yours for 2021.


As for the actual favorite book list: below are the titles I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2020, 6 in total. If I had to pick one, I’d go for Radiance by Carter Scholz.

Honorable mentions for The Day of the Triffids, Solaris, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again and How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, all more than excellent reads, well worth your time.

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