Tag Archives: 1990s

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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QUARANTINE – Greg Egan (1992)

Quarantine Greg EganGreg Egan’s first novel, An Unusual Angle, was published in 1983, Egan being 22 at the time. It “concerns a high school boy who makes movies inside his head using a bio-mechanical camera, one that he has grown.” Nine years later, Quarantine appeared and instantly removed all doubts about Egan’s erstwhile juvenile talents.

What starts as a detective set in 2067 quickly turns into a head spinning novel about the possible existential effects of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – more specifically the consciousness causes collapse variant. In short: humans observing stuff limits the number of possible worlds.

If you thought the popcorn sci-fi of Dark Matter was hard, well, this is the real deal. On the other hand, compared to the only other Egan I’ve read so far – the brilliant Schild’s Ladder – this is an easier, more accessible book.

The first half is smooth reading: Nick Stavrianos, a hardboiled PI, investigates a kidnapping/closed room mystery. The specifics of the setting – Earth quarantined by “an impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system” in 2034 – seem a cool yet inconsequential backdrop at first. It’s brilliant how Egan manages to weld the two mysteries together.
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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

TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

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

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

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

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SLECHT NIEUWS VOOR DOCTOR PAF DE PIERENNAAIER, PANDEMONIUM IN DE GRAUWZONE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1998)

I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died of chronic health problems due to heavy drinking in 2008 – a slow suicide. He was manic-depressive and suffered from paranoid anxiety. His books are hard to find and long OOP, but over the years I’ve managed to collect most of his work. This particular book seemed like the logical one to read right now, given the corona pandemic that’s ravaging the world. The title is a bit idiomatic, but could be translated as ‘Bad news for Dr. Poof the Worm-seamer, Pandemonium in the Grayzone’.

The rest of this post will be in Dutch, but stay tuned for a review of Dune Messiah. I hope to further explore the themes of my long analysis of Dune itself, and see how Herbert’s stance on determinism & love for tragedy evolves throughout the series. I’m not sure if that’ll be a viable strategy, I have just started my reread.


Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, pandemonium in de GrauwzoneIk heb al wat geschreven over Jean-Marie Berckmans, en ik ga proberen mezelf hier niet te herhalen. Lees dus eventueel eerst mijn eerbetoon aan de man waar ik ooit het podium mee deelde op een literaire avond in een jeugdhuis. Ik heb ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat uit 1995 gerecenseerd – met ontluisterende foto’s van diezelfde literaire avond, want het geromantiseer van Berckmans’ zogenaamde rock ‘n roll dat je hier en daar al eens tegenkomt is totaal misplaatst. Tot slot, hier nog drie alinea’s over de J.M.H. biografie van Chris Ceustermans die 10 jaar na zijn dood verscheen.

Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, Pandemonium in de Grauwzone is kort, zoals de meeste van Berckmans’ boeken – slechts 132 pagina’s. Het is wat radicaler dan Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat door zijn rechtlijnige vastberadenheid, ook al zijn de meeste thema’s grotendeels hetzelfde: angst, armoede, drinken als schild en medicijn, de stront van het leven.

De openingsscène is fantastisch – het is winter, en de Creutzfeldt-Jakob epidemie houdt huis in de Grauwzone – de nieuwe naam voor Barakstad: Berckmans’ Antwerpen rondom Café De Raaf in de Lange Lozanastraat. Het uitbreken van de dollekoeienziekte moet voor Jean-Marie een soort bevestiging zijn geweest: plots wordt de gehele wereld gedwongen om mee paranoia te zijn.

Maar al snel krijgt het boek iets monotoon. Een van de kwaliteiten van Taxi… was net de afwisseling: elk deel had een eigen karakter. Niet zo in Slecht nieuws: dat is geen afwisseling van verhalen en korte stukken en brieven zoals in zoveel van Berckmans’ andere boeken, maar een aaneenschakeling van korte teksten in dezelfde setting, met een duidelijke chronologie. Dit is een verhaal met een begin en een einde.
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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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4 SHORT REVIEWS

After I finished the fantastic Version Control, I read the excellent Keith Rowe biography by Brian Olewnick. I might still review that, but it’s a hard review to write for an audience unfamiliar with Rowe’s particular branch of experimental music.

Sadly, after those 2 great books, I’ve hit three I did not even finish. That and the relentless summer heat didn’t really urge me to start writing the reviews. Fortunately, that streak of bad reading luck came to an end, as I’ve also read a great, recent SF novella by Peter Watts, and finished yet another book on Rembrandt.

As the summer drought is still not over, I’ve decided I simply won’t bother trying to write longer, in-depth reviews for these books. I won’t even try to write up Hard To Be A God, the 1964 political allegory by the Strugatsky brothers, and the first book in that row of DNFs. I stopped after only 40 pages, not enough to write something meaningful, except that it was all too obviously allegorical for my tastes. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s those 4 mini-reviews…

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TAXI NAAR DE BOERHAAVESTRAAT – J.M.H. Berckmans (1995)

Taxi naar de Boerhaavestraat

Ik lees al jaren amper nog Nederlandstalige literatuur, vaak helemaal niks. Vorig jaar alleen Jagers In De Sneeuw, de fantastische debuutbundel van Eric Spinoy, uit 1986. Die had ik op een rommelmarkt in de Markgravelei in Antwerpen gevonden. Hetzelfde kraampje had ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat van JMH Berckmans. Het werk van Berckmans is moeilijk te vinden – alleen zijn laatste boek Ge Kunt Geen Twintig Zijn Op Suikerheuvel (2006) is nog relatief vlot verkrijgbaar, en 4 Laatste Verhalen – in 2009 postuum uitgegeven. Een vijftal andere titels zijn tegenwoordig wel verkrijgbaar als e-book, zelfs op bol.com: vooruitgang.

De Boerhaavestraat ligt in de Seefhoek, en op nummer 20 is er De Wilg, een sociaal centrum van het Antwerpse OCMW. De Wilg begeleidt onder andere mensen met een psychiatrische problematiek die elders geen opname kunnen betalen. Het is genoegzaam geweten dat Berckmans in 1977, 24, zelfmoord heeft proberen te plegen. Berckmans had na de eerste kandidatuur Germaanse – grote onderscheiding trouwens – een zware depressie gekregen, gevolgd door een manisch avontuur als succesvol schoenenverkoper in Italië, om dan terecht te komen in wat heel zijn leven lang een sukkelstraat zou blijven. Taxi Naar… is een bundel uit 1995 met 9 stukken, zo’n 10 tot 30 bladzijden lang.

Ik heb eens een avond en een nacht met Jean-Marie Henri Berckmans doorgebracht, op 18 november 2006, in jeugdhuis Zigzag in Merksplas, waar we een literaire avond hadden georganiseerd. Ik had er gedichten voorgelezen uit een ongepubliceerde bundel, en Berckmans zou er ook voorlezen. Daar is weinig van gekomen, zoals je hier al kon lezen. Geen twee jaar later was hij dood, gestorven omdat hij weinig at en enkel dronk.

JMH Berckmans

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LAKE OF THE LONG SUN – Gene Wolfe (1994)

lake-of-the-long-sun

If Nightside The Long Sun was about the protagonist’s self discovery, this second book in the series is about Patera Silk slowly discovering the true nature of his world.

The 4 volumes of The Book Of The Long Sun are set on a multigenerational starship – a fact that Tor reveals on the back cover, but one that is only revealed to the reader in this second book. It’s understandable that Tor did so, as The Long Sun is extremely hard to market: it’s an odd book: a lot more accessible than Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book Of The New Sun, but less lush, and a lot less compelling – at first sight maybe even boring. Tor might have increased its sales, spaceships sell, but the spoiler doesn’t do the reader any service: it takes away part of the joy of discovery, and it sets wrong expectations. Multigenerational starship yes, but no space opera or high tech scifi of whatever ilk. Continue reading

GARDENS OF THE MOON – Steven Erikson (1999)

gardens-of-the-moonI don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.

That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.

So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.

I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.

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THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

the-physiognomyThe Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

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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

NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN – Gene Wolfe (1993)

Nightside Of Long Sun

It was earliest morning, when even small trees cast long shadows and scarlet foxes trot denward through the dew like flecks of fire.

That’s a line from The Urth Of The New Sun, and it’s one of my favorite lines ever. Since Gene Wolfe wrote it, and Nightside The Long Sun is the first volume of The Book Of The Long Sun, a series set in the same universe as The Book Of The New Sun – one of my favorite reading experiences ever –  I started this book with high expectations, the hideous cover notwithstanding. Add to that the fact that Kim Stanley Robinson has called The Book Of The Long Sun his favorite SF novel.

Indeed, novel. The 4 books in this series are actually one big book: the 333 pages of the first volume all of a sudden just stop, and Lake, the sequel, just picks up where Nightside stops. So, my definitive judgement on the Artistic Merit of this Book will have to wait until I’ve read the 3 other volumes – something I will most definitely do.

That doesn’t mean Nightside is a very good book. As with all Wolfe I’ve read, the same list of adjectives – bizarre, strange, baffling, different, mythical, mysterious and oddball – springs to mind. And harsh, and deadpan. Nightside is set in a giant generational space ship, of the spinning cylinder Rendezvous With Rama-type. It was sent from a far, far future Earth (or Urth, or the Whorl) to some distant planet. Yet Nightside doesn’t register as SF at first – as in The New Sun, the inhabitants of its world don’t understand their surroundings, aren’t even aware they are on a spaceship, and are not able to repair or even understand the technology – AI entities in the Mainframe that sometimes appear on screens are worshipped as gods. The ship has been flying for ages, and its origins are mostly lost to the book’s characters. Continue reading

A SHORT, SHARP SHOCK – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

A short, sharp shockReading A Short, Sharp Shock confirmed my impression that Robinson is a writer with a tremendous range. It is a novella of about 100 pages that is hard to categorize because of its bizarre, surreal content. The story is about a man who wakes up, washed ashore on an unknown beach, not remembering who he is or how he got there. Next to him is an unknown woman, and very soon a story of travel throughout a mysterious world, filled with adventure and meetings with odd and intriguing characters, starts. Saying much more would spoil the experience of reading, since it has to be read and experienced first hand, as if immersed in a dream.

It’s probably not science fiction (it could be, if you think the protagonist is a space traveler stranded on another planet), and calling it fantasy is also a bit of a stretch, but there sure are fantastical elements to be found. Lets just leave it at speculative literature…  Continue reading

INVERSIONS – Iain M. Banks (1998)

InversionsWhen cancer tragically stole Iain Banks from our world in June 2013, I still had 4 of his books on my TBR-pile. Surface Detail, Inversions, The Algebraist and Transition. I decided to savour those, since there would never be the joy of waiting for a new Iain M. Banks to be published again. Surface Detail  was the last Culture novel on my TBR, so I read that first. After more than a decade of near abstinence of fiction, it was the Culture series that turned me into an avid fiction reader again. A friend told me he liked The Algebraist – a non-Culture doorstopper with sentient gass giants – a lot, and found Transition to be one of the wildest books he ever read. That set the order for the remaining books: read Inversions first, then The Algebraist and end with Transition, spread out over a year or two, three.

Over a week ago, I decided to start Inversions. It feels more like fantasy than science fiction. It is considered a Culture-novel by some, since it’s probably set in the same universe, and Banks himself has hinted at the fact that two of its principal characters are Culture agents – for those of you that haven’t read a Culture novel: read the opening section of this page, and get yourself Player of Games asap. Banks has employed the technique of writing fantasy stuff in the context a bigger galactic SF context elsewhere – parts of the excellent Matter are set in a kind of medieval kingdom too.

Sadly, Inversions is one of the few Iain M. Banks books that have disappointed me. Reading Feersum Endjinn was a chore that didn’t really pay off, and Inversions, well, that simply felt uninteresting. It seems fantasy, but it’s not done well: there’s no interesting world-building whatsoever. No magic, no different societies, no mythos, no cool creatures, no nothing. It’s a standard medieval human setting on a planet with more than one moon.

The first 50 pages were great, I even was a bit awestruck by how easy Banks’ prose is on these eyes – I had forgotten what a smooth writer Banks can be. But by page 100 the book had me bogged down, as it turned out to be a 1st person recount that mainly consists of pages and pages of lifeless, uninspired dialogue. The two fictional narrators aren’t style champions: I counted the  ‘X said’ or ‘said X’ construction 6 or 7 times on numerous pages, with a couple of ‘smiled X’ thrown in for variation. As a result, I lost interest in the characters, and more and more felt like I was reading really, really generic medieval fiction – aside from the book’s narrative construction. There’s no interesting mystery either, and hardly any action. If this hadn’t been a book by one of my favorite authors, I wouldn’t have finished it.

Some of Bank’s usual themes – morality, some discussion about a version of the Prime Directive, etc. – are so obviously present in the words of some characters that they come across as Banks’ hand puppets, instead of real people. That’s a downside of knowing an author well.

Inversions is about perspective too. The book is an epistolary novel – of the found footage type – and has 2 tales and 2 narrators. Both stories reflect on each other a bit. As a literary construction this surely has some merit. But as I said, not a lot happens. Some flat character ambassador tries to assassinate somebody else, and so forth. I didn’t connect with either party, since they felt constructed rather than real.

Flashes of Banks’ brilliance do shine through at times. There are some interesting scenes, and his talent for aphorisms still shows.

You can draw the blinds in a brothel, but people still know what you’re doing.

His main strength though – a wild, vivid, grand and daring imagination – simply isn’t played out here. Inversions isn’t grand scale utopian dreaming. Some reviewers have called this book subtle. I stick with dull. You be the judge, just don’t let this be your first Banks.


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