Category Archives: Reviews

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 – I hope to post on Wolfe’s most known work in about 3 weeks time. 

So no Severian yet, 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

PIRANESI – Susanna Clarke (2020)

PiranesiMy expectations for Piranesi were lukewarm. Clarke’s short story collection wasn’t fully successful, and the early descriptions of this new novel hinted at a dreamlike, labyrinthine, magic-realist puzzle – not really my cup of tea.

So I entered The House with a certain reservation, but Clarke’s narrative powers quickly swept me away.

Not that this book is a 100% triumph, but it would be foolish to dwell on its few, minor flaws too long. Taken as a whole, Piranesi succeeds brilliantly, and easily stands among the very best I’ve read this year.

I do think this review is safe for those who haven’t read it yet, but as I will try to unravel some of the book’s philosophical underpinnings, there will be mild spoilers – even so, nothing you can’t guess after about 30 pages in. I will not say anything about its relationship with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There are links aplenty – disenchantment for one – but Piranesi deserves to be treated & read as its own thing first.

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EON – Greg Bear (1985)

Greg Bear EonI need something from my reading. Be it good prose, or insight in the human condition, or wild ideas about science, or just a sense of escapist wonder. This book doesn’t deliver. It was my first Greg Bear, and I guess it will be my last.

Main turn off in Eon: characters that behave in a totally unbelievable manner. A global nuclear catastrophe is imminent, but let’s not tell anybody aside from these 11 people with security clearance. Let’s also put all our eggs in one basket, namely a 24-year old math genius. As time is not an issue, let’s not brief her fully ASAP so she can get to work, but let her experience this strange hollow asteroid herself, browse its libraries, appreciate its interior design computer programs.

Don’t get me started on the typical, unimaginative social dichotomies after the bombs go off (science lovers & science haters), or the fact that the Russians are bad, obviously. Bear wrote this in the 80ies. USA!
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JELLYFISH – Lisa-Ann Gershwin (2016) & ICE – Anna Kavan (1967)

2 reviews in this post: first the best jellyfish monograph published to this day – I’ll treat you with a bunch of stunning facts at the end of the review. After that, a much lauded slipstream classic.


JELLYFISH: A NATURAL HISTORY – Lisa-Ann Gershiwn (2016)

Jellyfish A Natural History GershwinGood books on jellyfish are hard to find: there hardly exist any. I’ve had the German ‘Quallen’ by Thomas Heeger (2004) for years, and that used to be the only comprehensive scientific monograph on the subject: someone should translate that in English.

I’m fascinated by the subject, so when I saw this very book in the biography of the underwhelming little book on jellyfish that Peter Williams published in 2020 I bought it instantly.

This book isn’t really about 50 jellyfish as advertised on the back: it rather is a monograph on 5 subjects: jellyfish anatomy, life history, taxonomy and evolution, ecology and finally the impact of humanity on jellyfish. Each subject gets about 20 pages in text (and some graphics & pictures), and after that Gershwin each time presents 10 jellyfish that illustrate some of the stuff from that particular chapter’s subject. Each jellyfish gets a full page photograph, and one page with additional information.

This makes for a bit of a hybrid: this is both a coffee table book with great, clear illustrations & a fairly thorough introduction to jellyfish biology. I doubt experienced marine biologists with an interest in the subject will learn a lot of new things from Gershwin, but for the general public the book is detailed nonetheless.

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STARSHIP TROOPERS – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Starship Troopers Jerry RobinsonMuch has been written on this seminal title by one of SF’s most famous authors – especially about the book’s alleged fascism, satirized by the 1997 Paul Verhoeven movie. The Wikipedia article lists 104 references, and has fairly long sections on the themes and their reception.

I don’t feel like writing an in-depth analysis this time, so let me try to break things down in a few short paragraphs. Reading experience first, politics and a bit of ethics second.


Starship Troopers is a rather fast paced military procedural novel. There’s much less action than I expected – especially in comparison to the movie: the novel focuses on the training and promotion of the main character, Juan Rico. There are a few battle scenes, but the bulk of the book focuses on the organization and procedures of Earth’s army. Continue reading

THE KNIGHT – Gene Wolfe (2004)

The Knight gene wolfeSomeday I will reread and review the four parts of The Book of the New Sun – one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. The consensus seems to be that Wolfe never topped that, but the appraisal for his other work is less unisono.

My own experience is similar. The Fifth Head of Cerberus went down relatively well, as did Urth of the New Sun, and I liked the first two parts of The Book of the Long Sun – a lot, at times – but dropped out of the third.

Enter The Wizard Knight – a later work, published when Wolfe was 73. The nature of this work is a bit unclear: is this a duology or one novel in two parts? The Knight was published a few months before The Wizard, some say for commercial reasons – Kill Bill: Vol. 1 came out in october 2003 and might have set a trend. The omnibus The Wizard Knight was published fairly quickly, in 2005.

Lots of reviewers seem to treat this as one novel – it sure is one story. However, the back of my Tor paperback of The Wizard starts with this quote from Publishers Weekly: “The Wizard stands alone and might even be best if read before The Knight, but will surely drive readers to the first as well….”

So I think it is fair to review The Knight separately, as the first part of a series, but I’ll reserve my judgement about the full story for when I’ve read the final volume too.

After the review, I’ll make some remarks about Wolfe’s politics as a reaction on an essay of his about The Lord of the Rings that might be of interest to some readers, even if they aren’t interested in The Knight.

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