Tag Archives: 1990s

CAFÉ DE RAAF NOG STEEDS GESLOTEN – J.M.H. Berckmans (1990)

Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten JMH BerckmansA post in Dutch, again about cult writer Jean-Marie Berckmans, who died in 2008 – after a lifelong struggle with manic-depression, anxiety and addiction. His books are OOP and hard to find. I’m slowly working my way through his oeuvre.

This review is about his 3rd book. The title translates as “The Raven Bar Is Still Closed”. The bar really existed and was situated in the Lange Lozannastraat in Antwerp, Belgium. A commemorative plaque was put on the building’s facade in 2018.

Next post will be in English again – probably on Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by PKD.


Ik heb reeds over Berckmans geschreven, en indien je niet vertrouwd bent met wie hij was kan je best eerst wat ik eerder schreef lezen – links vind je onderaan.

Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten werd vrij snel na zijn 2e debuut Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei gepubliceerd, en zowel vormelijk als thematisch sluit het naadloos aan bij die bundel. Een aantal van de verhalen in Café De Raaf dateren trouwens al van voor Zevenslaper, en heel de bundel was zo goed als klaar in het voorjaar van 1990. Alles wat ik over Zevenslaper schreef geldt dus eigenlijk ook voor dit werk, en ik vermoed ook dat het veelal zal gelden voor Rock & roll met Frieda Vindevogel uit 1991, waarvan een aantal verhalen ook al langer aan het rijpen waren.

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THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)

The Lions of Al-Rassan

When I read The Fionavar Tapestry six years ago, I was totally enamored by it. Kay’s debut series is a high fantasy classic with overtones of Frazer’s Golden Bough. At the time I wrote – rather pompously – that “Kay manages to convey one of the key aspects of a Romantic worldview so, so well: we, mortal humans, are part of a vast Whole that is mysterious, ancient, uncaring and unforgiving. This Whole determines us, but at the same time we determine parts of the Whole too. We cannot expect the Whole to do our bidding, that we have to do ourselves. In acknowledging this, and in doing this bidding, living our lives, there is heroism and honor to be found.”

I still stand by these words, but nevertheless I find myself puzzled by certain aspects of The Lions of Al-Rassan that tie into said Romanticism: the ethics of violent heroism and honor as it is portrayed in Kay’s sixth novel – considered by many to be his best, in tandem with 1990’s Tigana.

I didn’t finish Tigana, abandoning it quickly because I couldn’t get over its obvious artificial nature, and because something in the prose didn’t ring true. Maybe I should have persisted, but either way I’m glad I didn’t give up on Kay because of it: The Lions Of Al-Rassan made my cry three times – once even for the duration of a couple of pages. No mean feat, no mean feat at all. So while I will raise some critical questions in this review, make no mistake about it: I enjoyed this book very, very much, and if historical fantasy is something you enjoy, do not hesitate to try Al-Rassan yourself.

The novel leans heavily on the Reconquista of Spain, which took about 4 centuries, but Kay compresses it into a single lifetime. Its setting resembles the Iberian peninsula, but the Muslims, Christians and Jews go by other names. Kay himself has talked about the benefits of historical fantasy as a genre:

First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.

I’m not sure I agree, at least, not in the case of Al-Rassan, because it is all so instantly recognizable as Spain somewhere in the 11 to 15th century, and if you’re a wee bit familiar with European history, the Kindath clearly are Jews, the Asharites clearly Muslims and the Jaddites clearly Christians.

That does not mean Kay didn’t manage to write a story about universal themes: the “interplay between bigotry and tolerance”, the “uses and misuses of religion for political ends” and “the real price of war paid in bloodshed, loss and grief.”

He did write something universal, but not because the story was fictionalized in a world with two moons, and names and some other stuff was changed. I think the story is universal simply because these themes are universal in and by themselves. The fact that Kay turned it into a successful story doesn’t have that much to do with the chosen genre but simply with his narrative craft, authorial decisions and excellent prose.

As for genre: I should warn potential readers with a narrow taste that this book hardly features magic or other tropes specific to (high) fantasy. There’s the two moons that just serve as a backdrop, and one sole instance of precognition that drives a crucial part of the story. That’s it. But there are assassins, horses, palaces, and sword-fighting. And because Kay does all that extremely well, most fans should get their kicks even without dragons, demons or fire-bolts.

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PACIFIC EDGE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

I first started this review with an opening about Robinson who can’t write characters according to some – but then I noticed I already did that for The Gold Coast. Either way, it bears repeating. Depending on what one has sampled from his work – 21 novels by now, and hundreds of pages short stories – I can understand the sentiment to a degree. But my feelings don’t agree at all. The last 50 pages of Pacific Edge made me cry two times, and that doesn’t happen a lot: last time was about a year ago – it is such a heartfelt, human novel.

Pacific Edge is part of the Orange County triptych, and in a way that denomination does the novel a disservice: some people might consider this to be final book in a trilogy and refrain from reading it because of that.

All Three Californias books are stand-alone novels, each presenting a different future for an area south of Los Angeles – one about survivors of a nuclear war, another a cyberpunkish dystopia, and this one a utopia. While there are some minor formal connections, you don’t miss a thing if you only read those that appeal to you.

I liked them all, but this might be me favorite – because of the strong emotions it evoked, even if The Wild Shore was a similar human book, and Gold Coast made me cry too – about a year ago.

I will not offer comparisons between the three books, but limit myself to examine why it still works as a utopian novel 32 years down the line, and I’ll include some notes too about its remarkable relationship to KSR’s latest, his magnum opus The Ministry for the Future.

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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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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 of his 1977 debut, albeit with a different title.


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 bipolar 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 covid 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.


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. Meer linkjes vind je onderaan.

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 BoerhaavestraatIk 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