Tag Archives: 1980s

A FUNERAL FOR THE EYES OF FIRE – Michael Bishop (1980)

A Funeral For The Eyes Of FireThis “anthropological SF” book has a somewhat confusing history. In 1975 Michael Bishop published his debut, A Funeral For The Eyes Of Fire. It didn’t sell well, but Bishop continued writing – books like Catacomb Years and Transfigurations. In 1978 David Hartwell of Pocket Books offered Bishop a contract to rewrite his first novel. The result was published in 1980 as Eyes Of Fire, with a cover almost identical to the first edition. To make things even more confusing, in 1989 Kerosina Books published that new version under the exact same title as the debut, something Bishop would have liked to have done in 1980 too, but didn’t, to avoid confusing potential readers. In 2015 Kudzu Planet reprinted the 1980 version, also as A Funeral For The Eyes Of Fire, yet again with another cover.

All that explains why Goodreads at the moment still has just one entry for the two texts. Both books differ tremendously however, and the differences are chronicled quite detailed in the 1989 edition, most explicitly in an afterword by Ian Watson, as well as in the extensive foreword by Bishop himself. Just to be clear, Bishop prefers the second version: he will not allow a reprint of the first book.

The differences are not a matter of rephrasing some sentences and the addition or subtraction of a few scenes. This is not simply a director’s cut like Green Earth. While the overall idea of the plot and the philosophical foundations of the story are more or less the same, the two protagonists have a very different relation to each other, the aliens’ anatomy differs, and the social reality on the planet were the bulk of the story is set, is significantly different. And while the debut had a first person narrator, this is a third person narrative. The fact that nearly all names are changed too isn’t even that important.

Anyhow, it seems like Bishop took the basic ideas of his debut, and wrote a whole new book. Watson puts it like this:

The new novel is far more disciplined and tauter; but where another writer might merely have pruned excesses, Bishop has  not merely reorchestrated but has written an entirely different symphony based on the same themes – and on several new ones.

Just to be clear: I’ve read the 1989 edition, and so this review can double as a review for 1980’s Eyes Of Fire too. Continue reading

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BURNING CHROME and other stories – William Gibson (1986)

burning-chromeOn the final page of the final story – the title story – Gibson envisions a possible future for prostitution.

The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways.

It struck me how much reading books satisfies the same urge: wanting to be alone and needing someone at the same time.

Burning Chrome‘s 10 stories are populated by Gibson’s usual kind of characters, and deal with Gibson’s usual themes – although I probably shouldn’t make a sweeping statement like that, as I’ve only read two Gibson novels so far: Neuromancer & Virtual Light. Those two reading experiences weren’t fully successful, but reading this collection was, 100%.

The stories were published between 1977 and 1986, and are rather short: about 15 pages each, and not one of them above 30 pages. They fly by like a breeze, snappy, in prose that’s top notch. Here’s Gibson – in the voice of a photographer – on some building:

I shot one in San Jose an hour before the bulldozers arrived and drove right through the structural truth of plaster and lathing and cheap concrete.

That sentence alone should convince you.

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WHITE NOISE – Don DeLillo (1985)

white-noiseWhite Noise is a famous novel. It’s one of the prime examples of postmodern literature, and it’s the book that made Don DeLillo big. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985 – Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home was nominated as well. It’s been analyzed to death: there are editions with the novel’s text & criticism side to side.

So yes, indeed, all of the stuff you have read about White Noise is true. There’s irony. Critique on television. Critique of consumer society. A lot of enumerations of consumer products. Enumerations of other stuff. Tiny snippets of commercials, documentaries, radio news, manuals. A protagonist that has been married 5 times to 4 women and who’s a professor in Hitler studies. Musings about death. Stuff about popular culture. General stuff. Specific stuff. Bleak stuff. American stuff. Meta stuff. 310 pages and about 10 meta lines for the literature post grad to feast upon. The novel is self-aware indeed.

I thought that when tradition becomes too flexible, irony enters the voice. Nasality, sarcasm, self-caricature and so on.

A description like that might be off putting to some. But it also misses the point, as postmodern meta-ness is not even the novel’s strength: it’s all fairly transparent anyway. What’s missing in most of the scholarly analysis I’ve read, is the humanity that underlies it all. White Noise, for me, was first and foremost a book with remarkable and deep emotional understanding of family life and fatherhood. Continue reading

THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS – Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE DARKEST ROAD – Guy Gavriel Kay (1986)

The Darkest RoadThe Fionavar Tapestry trilogy declines in quality throughout. It’s not a big decline, but a decline it is. The Summer Tree is spectacular. The Wandering Fire is still top-notch, yet the first book remains the better. The Darkest Road however doesn’t merit 5 out of 5 stars anymore: let’s say a solid 3.5 instead.

Using a word like “decline” in the first paragraph doesn’t do these books justice, so let me be loud & clear: taken as a whole, The Fionavar Tapestry is highly recommended, and one of the classic series of the genre.

I’ll briefly formulate a few reasons that made reading the third book the lesser experience: there’s a structural issue, a prose problem, and one plot weakness. I’ll conclude with writing a bit about the main theme and Kay’s metaphysics.

Most of what I wrote in the reviews of the first and second book remains true. The Darkest Road doesn’t change style or substance. Since I loved what Kay wrote in the first two books, that’s mainly a strength, but maybe it’s a weakness too, as book three is more of the same. It doesn’t add a lot to the previous two books. While The Wandering Fire deepened the world and the characters, The Darkest Road simply follows the story to its expected conclusion: a big battle. Not that that battle plays out fully as expected, but still, The Darkest Road is very much a concluding volume, neatly tying every narrative thread.

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THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Handmaid's TaleA lot has been written about this book. It’s on number 37 of American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, and that’s ‘challenged’ like in ‘banned on certain schools’. There has been lots of feminist discussion of the book too – both favorable and unfavorable. The content of this books mixes sexuality, hardline religion, totalitarian politics, reproductive oppression and American culture in one explosive cocktail: perfect tinder to kindle a debate among the participants of the culture wars.

I don’t have the time nor the energy to contribute a lot to those debates. Atwood seems to have written a book that makes people think, and I can’t object to that. As far as the feminist debate goes, I’ll only say this: I have the feeling this book neither vilifies men nor simply victimizes women, and as such I think it’s intelligent and balanced.

While The Handmaid’s Tale retains its appeal, and might even be considered a timeless book, it seems to breathe the atmosphere of the 1980ies: an atmosphere of uncertainty, and even pessimism: the onset of AIDS, the Cold War, pollution, nuclear accidents, Reagan and rightwing politics.

There has been some debate whether this book is science fiction or just speculative fiction. Atwood seems to favor the latter, but to me this seems not much more than a semantic discussion. SF or SF, it is a book set in the not so distant future (the end of 20th century, seen from 1985), with a certain dystopian feeling: pollution and the likes have caused extreme fertility problems in the Western world, and in the USA there also has been a “catastrophe” of undisclosed nature, a nuclear meltdown maybe. This has led to a political revolution, with all the members of Congress killed, the constitution suspended and an extremely totalitarian & theocratic regime installed, the “Republic of Gilead”.

I’m not sure the book worked for me.

It does succeed – masterfully even – to evoke an atmosphere. In that respect, the first person narration of a woman who is reduced to someone whose sole purpose is breeding works very well. The novel has a claustrophobic vibe, and just as the protagonist is kept uninformed and shielded off, the reader too only gets glimpses of the totality of the world and times the book is set in.

The prose is excellent, poetic even. Atwood manages to evoke a lot without that many words, and for me this is her true strength. The book is only 324 pages, but it’s not a light, quick read, as one needs the concentrate in order not to miss anything.

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THE SECOND CHRONICLES OF AMBER – Roger Zelazny (1985-91)

Second Chronicles Of AmberRoger Zelazny wrote two Amber cycles. The first five books were published from 1970 to 1978, and have Corwin as the main character. They are one long story, and taken together they are one of my all time favorite fantasy books, as the story is something daring & unique. It’s considered to be one of the classics of the genre, and rightly so.

The second cycle, also know as the Merlin cycle, was published from 1985 to 1991. It consists of 5 novels too: Trumps Of Doom, Blood Of Amber, Signs Of Chaos, Knight Of Shadows and Prince Of Chaos. Their story takes place a decade or two after the first cycle, and focuses on Merlin, the son of Corwin.

I’m disappointed to report that I agree with those who think this second part of The Great Book Of Amber doesn’t live up to the Corwin cycle. As it has been a couple of years since I’ve read that first cycle, it’s hard to compare the two in a detailed manner. I also can’t rule out that my tastes have shifted a bit, resulting in me simply liking these books a bit less than I would have if I’d just continued with the second series right after the first. Still, I don’t think this is a big determining factor in my dislike. I can put my finger on why I didn’t like The Second Chronicles quite easily, and as I remember it, the first books didn’t really suffer from these weaknesses. (I plan to reread the Corwin cycle, so I’ll report back on this issue somewhere in the future.)

Why didn’t this cycle click with me?  Continue reading