Tag Archives: 1970s

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions VonnegutBreakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a pivotal book in Vonnegut’s career as an author. It’s his 7th novel, and the one published after his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. Published when he was 53, it took him years to write, with a lengthy pause due to chronic depression. In a way, it is his farewell to fiction, intending to abandon the fictional form and the novel as ways to change the world or get to the truth. He returned to novels quickly however, publishing seven more.

I think the book was difficult to write because Slaughterhouse-Five was so good, and Vonnegut knew it would be hard to top. Despite the long gestation period, he wasn’t happy with the result and “gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.” The critics were critical too, yet it remains one of his best known works – maybe in the wake of SH5‘s success?

Every artist has to deal with repetition, and Vonnegut tried to tackle it in this book by trying out two new things, but it are not much more than formal attempts, hardly changing the tone and the voice of his writing. The result is that Breakfast of Champions never rises above being generic Vonnegut. A quick dissection after the jump.

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A SCANNER DARKLY – Philip K. Dick (1977)

A Scanner Darkly (Pepper)A Scanner Darkly isn’t really science fiction: PKD didn’t want to publish a mainstream literary novel as his previous attempts had been failures. The publisher suggested Dick to put in a few bits of strange technology (the scramble suit) and set its timeline in 1994, so that it could be marketed as science fiction.

The book is a semi-autobiographical story based on Dick’s own struggles with drugs in the early 70ies. In this troubled period, he took amphetamines full time, and stopped writing all together. He talked about it in a 1977 interview with Uwe Anton and Werner Fuchs:

“But on the drug thing, what happened was that after my wife Nancy left me in 1970, I was in a state of complete desolation and despair, and suicidally depressed because I really loved her. She took my little girl with her, who I really loved, and I didn’t see my little girl for – I saw her only once in a whole year, just for a few minutes. I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs. But that was for a period of just about a year. And then I just took amphetamines. I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends.”

The interview also specifically talks about A Scanner Darkly:

“I saw things that if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I simply wouldn’t have believed them. (…) Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw. I mean I saw even worse things than I put in A Scanner Darkly. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn’t complete a sentence, they really couldn’t state a sentence. And this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and I just saw, you know, it was like a vision of Hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime, and I was just…I’m just…it’s just…well, I was in love with a girl who was an addict and I didn’t know she was an addict and it was just pathetic. So I wrote A Scanner Darkly.
But, I did take amphetamines for years in order to be able to – I was able to produce 68 final pages of copy a day. But I write very slowly now and I take my time, because I don’t have any economic pressures. I was supporting, at one time, four children and a wife with very expensive tastes. Like she bought a Jaguar and so forth. I just had to write and that is the only way I could do it. And, you know, I’d like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I’m not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, turn out that volume of writing. So I can’t really say that for me amphetamines were a total, negative thing.”

Remarkably, A Scanner Darkly is a book on drugs, yet it wasn’t written under influence.

“Ah, well, my writing falls into two degrees, the writing done under the influence of drugs and the writing I’ve done when I’m not under the influence of drugs. But when I’m not under the influence of drugs I write about drugs. I took amphetamines for years in order to get energy to write. I had to write so much in order to make a living because our pay rates were so low. In five years I wrote sixteen novels, which is incredible. (…) But as soon as I began to earn enough money so that I didn’t have to write so many books, I stopped taking amphetamines. So now I don’t take anything like that. And I never wrote anything under the influence of psychedelics. For instance, Palmer Eldritch I wrote without ever having even seen psychedelic drugs.”

That’s it for the background – what about the novel itself?

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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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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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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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BRIEF AAN EEN MEISJE IN HOBOKEN — GESCHIEDENIS VAN DE REVOLUTIE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1977/1994)

This post is in Dutch, as I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans. The novel I review is a 1994 reissue with a different title of his 1977 debut.


Brief aan een meisje in HobokenBrief aan een meisje in Hoboken / Geschiedenis van de Revolutie neemt een wat aparte plaats in in het oeuvre van Jean-Marie Berckmans.

Zijn debuut verscheen ruim elf jaar voor Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei uit 1989, de eerste van wat in totaal 14 verhalenbundels zouden worden. Geschiedenis van de Revolutie is zijn enige werk dat geboekstaafd staat als een “roman”.

Het manuscript was al af in september 1974, iets voor Jean-Maries 21ste verjaardag. Hij begon het boek na zijn eerste kandidatuur Germaanse, en het kan daarom als een jeugdwerk worden beschouwd.

Toch zou het fout zijn deze korte roman van 160 pagina’s af te doen als een minder werk van een nog wat onvolwassen JMH. Continue reading

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 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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LANGUAGE UNLIMITED (2019) – PICASSO (2018) – HANFF (1970)

Short write-ups of three very different books: a new linguistics book intended for a general audience, a splendid book on Picasso’s drawings & an epistolary classic of some sorts…

There’s even one I can recommend 100%!

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BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Octavia E. Butler (1995)

Bloodchild and other stories

Lists are fun. Hence me browsing the fantastic Classics of Science Fiction, an aggregated ranking site by James W. Harris – who blogs about sci fi and getting older over at Auxiliary Memory. I saw that Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was ranked as the most cited (i.e. best) science fiction short story. For what it’s worth, it also won a Hugo, Locus, Nebula & SF Chronicle award. As I hadn’t read anything yet by Octavia Butler, I thought Bloodchild would be a good place to start. I found a cheap second hand copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories easily, and here we are.

There’s a couple of editions of the collection. The copy I got was published in 1995, and that has 5 stories, plus 2 essays. From 2005 onward however, it has been printed with two more stories – Amnesty and The Book Of Martha, both written in 2003. I did some googling and I found those easily, here and here – I’ll review them too. The fact that I chose to look online for the additional material is telling: this is not a bad collection – and that from an author who opens the preface to her collection with this line: “The truth is, I hate short story writing.”

It’s somewhat of a behind the scenes publication: each story is followed by an afterword of about 2 pages, in which Butler talks a bit about what she wanted to do with the story or how it came about. They are generally interesting, nothing spectacular, but nice enough. There’s also 2 short essays on writing, and I’ll say a few words about those later.

I’ll just do a quick write up of each story and a wee bit of concluding thoughts. This’ll be a fairly short review for a short book: 145 pages in my edition. Here we go:

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REMBRANDT & HERZOG

2 short reviews for now. I will post a longer one on The Ethnic Phenomenon soon, which again won’t be a review of a speculative work of fiction. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve finally started rereading Dune a few days ago – so I hope to review that in a few weeks.

If you’re not interested in the books, do check out my Werner Herzog documentary recommendations at the end, and the tragic lesson at the end of the Rembrandt review.


Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Gentleman

REMBRANDT’S PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG GENTLEMAN – Jan Six (2018)

The back cover promises this account of how Jan Six discovered a new portrait by Rembrandt to be a “thriller”: sadly this is not the case. Six’s writing is dull and bland, and there is simply no tension whatsoever present, except at the very beginning, when Six spots the painting at Christie’s – it’s ironic that exactly that turns out to be a false account, but more on that later.

If you’ve read anything about Rembrandt by Ernst Van de Wetering – the leading Rembrandt expert – there won’t be that much to learn from this book about the practice of how 17th century paintings are ascribed to a painter, or on Rembrandt’s painterly processes. If you’re new to reading Rembrandt scholarship, this is an easy and quick crash course though. So, your milage may vary.

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THE FARTHEST SHORE – Le Guin & THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Hemingway

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

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GATEWAY – Frederik Pohl (1977)

Gateway

Gateway is a famous book. It’s one of the few novels that won 4 major prizes: the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Campbell award, and it’s on numerous essential SF lists.

While it’s perfectly self-contained, Pohl wrote 5 sequels: Beyond The Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), The Annals Of The Heechee (1987), The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Together with the 1972 novella The Merchants Of Venus, and The Gateway Trip – a short story collection that appeared in 1990 – these books form the Heechee saga.

The Heechee are a mysterious alien race that explored our Galaxy hundreds of millennia ago. Near Earth, they left structures on Venus, and – crucial for this novel – a space station in an asteroid, including functional spaceships. Humans can operate these, but don’t really understand the technology.

The basic premise of Gateway is brilliant: humans embark on voyages in these ships, but it’s a bit of a lottery. Most of the time, crews do not know where they’ll end up – there might be proverbial gold at the destination, but more likely it’ll be just a barren planet, or worse, mortal danger. The link with prospecting in the Wild West is easily made.

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SOUL CATCHER – Frank Herbert (1972)

Soul CatcherA few years ago, I decided to read the most important other Herbert novels before starting a reread of the Dune series. A review of Children Of Dune on the always thoughtful Gaping Blackbird, made me eager to start that reread. That review focuses on the Nietzschean inspiration of CoD, and it led to an interesting discussion in the comments. So, I was eager to dive into Dune again, but as I still had Soul Catcher on my TBR, I started that.

Yesterday, after finishing Soul Catcher, I decided to kick the reread of Dune even a bit further back, and I ordered Destination: Void, on account of Joachim Boaz, who praised Herbert’s handling of its characters’ psyches in the comments of my Whipping Star review – as Soul Catcher is first and foremost a character driven novel, and one that even succeeds at that. I have to admit I had given up on Herbert as non-Dune writer, as Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment and The Santaroga Barrier all disappointed. So I’m all the more pleased to report Soul Catcher was a good read, and one that invigorated me to give Destination: Void an honest chance.

Genre classifications being what they are, potential readers should be aware that Soul Catcher is not speculative fiction. Rob Weber reported in his review on Val’s Random Comments that the publisher, Putnam, even put the following on the back flap: “This is Frank Herbert’s first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune…”. Novels were not the same as science fiction books in 1972. Interestingly enough, there is no trace of that attitude on my 1979 edition, on the contrary. As you can see on the 1979 cover I included here, both the illustration and the text try to tap on to a speculative vibe: this is a “terrifying novel of the Spirit World” – click on it if it shows up too small. Apparently Soul Catcher didn’t really catch on as regular literary fiction, and 7 years later, marketing decided to firmly latch it to Herbert’s other output – it’s pretty clear if you compare the vibe of the covers of the first two editions to the later one. The 2012 cover reverts the approach again. As always, ISFDB has a good overview of all the different cover art.

As Rob also wrote, the fact that this isn’t a SF book should not deter Herbert fans: “the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert’s other works.”

Soul Catcher deals with a Native American kidnapping a 13-year old boy with the intent to kill him, as symbolical revenge for the rape of his own sister by a gang of white men, and her ensuing suicide – and by extension all the other crimes against the indigenous humans of the continent. As such it is a book that simply would not be published in these times of hired sensitivity readers. It would not get published just because of sensitivity issues: on top of that a white man writing a story like this without a doubt would get accused of cultural appropriation too. The fact that Herbert researched the subject extensively and clearly does not sympathize with white, Western genocidary imperialism would not excuse him. I’m sure today no publisher would dare to take a chance in our era of hair trigger culture wars.

After the jump you’ll find a rather lengthy discussion of a few different things: Soul Catcher as a psychological novel that also teaches us about today’s ‘terrorist’ violence; Soul Catcher as a critique on Western society and its interesting, realistic use of the ‘noble savage’ trope; a discussion on the use of ‘soul’ vs. ‘spirit’; a nugget for Dune fans; and my thoughts on the powerful ending and that ending’s relation to a movie adaptition that might or might not be made.

Certain sections are quote heavy, but obviously you can skim those if the particular topic doesn’t interest you that much.

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WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… – Joanna Russ (1975)

We Are About To...After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance.

As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself–once a “Neochristian”–on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “gobal capitalism”).

The main gist of what I wanted to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better known The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

If you want a quick intro on the plot, here’s Joachim Boaz’s glowing review.


What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in Children Of Men, but it’s been ages since I’ve seen the movie, and I haven’t read the book by P.D. James. More importantly, doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.

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