Tag Archives: 1990s

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

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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. I decided to read Surface Detail first, so that I at least could achieve some kind of closure with the Culture series – Surface Detail being the last Culture novel I had to read. After more than a decade of near abstinence of fiction, it was this series that really turned me into an avid fiction reader again. As such, they will always occupy a special place in my memory. A friend of mine told me he liked The Algebraist – a non-Culture SF novel which features sentient gass giants among other things – 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, maybe in a year or two, three.

Over a week ago, I decided to start Inversions. It feels more like a fantasy story 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-like stuff in the context a bigger galactic SF context elsewhere – parts of the excellent Matter play out in a kind of medieval kingdom too.

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

While I liked the first 50 pages, and was even a bit awestruck by how easy Banks’ prose is on these eyes (apparently I had forgotten what a smooth writer Banks can be), by page 100 the book had me bogged down. I don’t know where it happened exactly, but it became a 1st person recount mainly consisting 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. 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 not an 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 Banks usual themes – morals, discussion about a version of the Prime Directive, etc. – are so obviously present in the words of some characters, they come across as Banks’ hand puppets, instead of real people.

Inversions is about perspective too. The book is an epistolary novel – of the found footage type so you will – and has 2 tales and 2 narrators. Both stories reflect on each other a bit. As a literary construction this surely has some merit. Yet, nothing really happens. Some flat character ambassador tries to assassinate somebody else, and so forth, yet we don’t connect with either party, since they feel 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.

VIRTUAL LIGHT – William Gibson (1993)

Virtual LightI was a bit disappointed with the acclaimed Neuromancer, but I thought Gibson nonetheless had an interesting way with words, so I decided to give another one of his novels a chance. Virtual Light is mostly set in San Francisco, and is a thriller about a bike courier that accidentally steals high-tech sunglasses with important data on them, and finds herself chased by the male protagonist and an assortment of goons, dirty cops and a hit-man with gold canine teeth.

The cyberpunk/sci-fi component isn’t that important actually, and serves more as a backdrop. The Time Out reviewer that’s quoted on the back and claimed that VL is “studded with crackling insights into the relationship between technology, culture and morality” is no stranger to hyperbole: both ‘crackling’ and ‘studded’ seem stretched.

Gibson took a risk writing this book with a 2006 setting, only 13 years after its publication date. In hindsight, that risk didn’t pay off, as Gibson is totally off with nearly every prediction in this book – technologically too optimistic, and socially (much) too pessimistic. At times unbelievable and cartoonish too, with stuff like the Adult Survivors of Satan, the idolatry of an ex-con that provided the cure for AIDS, a cult that believes god resides in reruns of old movies, etc.

Virtual Light has the same gritty, dystopian vibe as Neuromancer, and Gibson still mainly shows and hardly tells, with short sentences and realistic, elliptic dialogue – albeit a bit less dense. As such, I liked it a lot better, and the story got me hooked quickly. After about 2 thirds in though, the mysterious promise that the sunglasses held quickly dissolved. When it became clear why they were so wanted, I lost nearly all interest in the story and the characters. So, in the end, VL turned out to be disappointing too. Still, I’m not ready to fully give up on Gibson. Burning Chrome is next on the list.

tl;dr: the language and the mood is excellent, the story not so much.

THE DIAMOND AGE – Neal Stephenson (1995)

The Diamond AgeAs a big fan of Anathem  – one of my favorite SF novels – and Snow Crash, I had high expectations for this book. Although The Diamond Age, or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer has its merits, and is often entertaining, ultimately, I was disappointed.

The problem with this book is that it tries so hard. It’s so obviously textbook postmodern (mixing genres, high & low, the Victorian & cyberpunk, etc.; abrupt switches in point of view, storylines cut short, odd jumps ahead in time, etc.) that it becomes tiresome after a while. In the same postmodern vein, some of the ideas are so obviously, outrageously over the top (nanocomputing via mass orgies, anyone?) that they ultimately fall flat on their faces.

There’s the obligatory postmodern meta-ness too, as this is a science fiction book about a fictional high-tech book. That part works rather well though, and is truly clever.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to like in this book. The first 400 pages of my 500 page edition had me gripped. There’s a sense of wonder and mystery, and some interesting characters. The stories that Nell, the young girl, reads in her primer are original and sometimes hauntingly beautiful – such a mixture of fantasy-ish fairytale material and SF is echoed in books like House of Suns and The Three-Body Problem. So, yes, it’s a good read for the bulk of the time. Yet near the end, I couldn’t really care for what happened to the characters anymore, in part because it was becoming predictable and repetitive. The ending felt rushed & haphazard, and too much of an actionflick pastiche.

Aside from the climax that simply was too climactic, my other main problem with this book is the fact that Stephenson’s prose is often so dense it becomes a chore. There’s heaps of detailed descriptions, larded with Stephenson’s favorite technique: the enumeration.

The Diamond Age usually follows the same pattern: character enters new setting, which is described in detail for some pages, and then something happens to the character for about half a page – often just dialogue. The descriptions are wild, Stephenson’s imagination vivid, but at the same time there’s hardly any variation in the writing, which makes for boring reading.

This book is also a lot more pretentious than Snow Crash, and because of that, less fun.

By all means, if you liked other Stephenson books, give The Diamond Age a chance. It’s not bad. Just be prepared for tons of sentences like:

The Coastal Republic checkpoints at the intersections of the roads were gray and fuzzy, like house-size clots of bread mold, so dense was the fractal defense grid, and staring through the cloud of macro- and microscopic aerostats, Hackworth could barely make out the hoplites in the center, heat waves rising from the radiators on their backs and stirring the airborne soup.

I cannot stress the brilliance of Anathem though!

originally written on the 6th of October, 2015

THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION – Peter F. Hamilton (1996)

The Reality Dysfunction

I really wanted to like this, since I like Space Opera on a grand scale and a vast canvas, like Banks & early Reynolds. This however, felt bad for 2 reasons.

First, Hamilton is no stylist: the book suffers from a terrible use of language. Wrought sentences, tons of exposition, cheapo images (“if the ship would have had lungs, it would have sighed”), tedious descriptions of things, etc. This is not a standalone novel, so there’s 3000 pages of that in the entire series?

A so-so writing style would have been something I could have overcome, but then the content has to be good. As you might have guessed, this wasn’t the case either, and that’s the second problem of The Reality Dysfunction. While the first chapter still held some promise, the second chapter is a description of the evolution of life on a moon surrounding some planet, but on top of the bad prose, it features factual mistakes (it boldly claims that all first life everywhere in the universe are algae) and yet pretends to be knowledgeable by heaps and heaps of pseudo-scientific English.

Brace yourself for what happens next. Said life on that moon evolves to be sentient slugs that store their memories “chemically” into seeds eaten by their offspring (that become instantly sentient because of that eating). Then, due to very extreme weather (energy storms, the works) every 9 years (because of “4-moon-alignment”) the slugs, by the energy lightning, are transformed into transcendent immaterial life forms, floating into space without a body, on a path to furthermore colonize the entire universe. What?? The book is full of very elaborate, highly artificial ideas like this. They might seem original at first, but fall flat when you look through the seemingly scientific prose and think about it for 2 seconds.

Furthermore, to illustrate the level of the ‘depth’ of social analysis that Hamilton displays, here’s a conversation between a ship mind and an organic newborn:

But you said there are lots of different religions; how can there be many gods? There can’t be more than one Creator, surely? That’s a contradiction.

A good point. Several of the largest wars Earth has known have been fought over this issue. All religions claim theirs is the true faith. In actuality, any religion is dependent solely on the strength of conviction in its followers.

Really? 1996, and we’re not past stuff like that? Okay, this ship is talking to a child, but do we as readers have to be bored with this? Or is Hamilton writing for teenagers?

I didn’t finish it. If a writer can’t hook me after about 100 pages, and even manages to irritate me about every other page of those pages, I cut my losses. I rather spend my time with a book that doesn’t feel forced.

originally written on the 2nd of December, 2014

FORWARD THE FOUNDATION – Isaac Asimov (1993)

Forward The FoundationSomewhat better than the previous installment (Prelude to the Foundation), this book might be of interest to Foundation completionists, but it lacks the scope, depth and vision of the Trilogy, and it also lacks the interesting story the 4th and the 5th novels still had.

This is just Hari Seldon working on psychohistory on Trantor, setting up the Foundations. At least it isn’t as predictable structure-wise as Prelude…. There’s not really that much of interest to learn, and as always, Asimov is not a good stylist, nor a writer of vivid dialogue.

The text on the back cover is hyperbole: this is no “crowning achievement” nor a “stunning testament”. I feel Asimov had better not succumbed to his readers’ pressure, and should have ended the series after Foundation and Earth. The 2 prequels feel forced, but this is the finer of the 2, for what that’s worth.

Still, since it’s only about 400 pages in pocket format, and not a dense read at all, completing the series isn’t a big investment of your time. Just don’t start reading because of Foundation-FOMO.

originally written on the 10th of October, 2014

THE FALL OF HYPERION – Dan Simmons (1990)

The Fall Of Hyperion

While the first book, Hyperion, can be considered as a thrilling collection of short stories, this book feels contrived and boring, written without much attention to style. And while the world building in the first book was definitely interesting, nothing much is added here.

Almost none of the characters are interesting or have real development. In the first book, this wasn’t really a problem, since it were just short stories in a larger frame, but in this book, things get an even more shallow & caricatural vibe. Yet a drunken poet or a tormented priest – a Jesuit, of course! – that ponders the decline of his religion aren’t that interesting for plot building. (On a sidenote, Dune had the Orange Catholic Bible and Zensufism, Hyperion has Zen Catholicism. Hommage, or theft?)

Even more problematic than lacking character development, is that things are repeated & explained ad nauseam. Even after more than 100 pages in the book, stuff from the first book is repeated unnecessarily, adding nothing. A sentence like “Gladstone thought about Sol Weintraub and his wife Sarai and their beautiful twenty-six-year-old-daughter, returning from a year of archeological discovery on Hyperion with no discovery except the Shrike’s curse, the Merlin sickness.” is exemplary. There’s nothing new in this sentence, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it would have been well written, or contained nice imagery, or a worthwhile thought, etc. No, all we get is a vapid adjective like “beautiful”…

The book also suffers from pseudo-philosophical insights and a heavy-handed poetic theme. I love poetry, but the entire John Keats things feels forced, and again, actually adds nothing to the story. It feels like a whim of the author, taking up too much page time. This sentence from the epilogue: “I learned that poets aren’t God, but if there is a god … or anything approaching a God … he’s a poet. And a failed one at that.” illustrates the problem perfectly: Simmons tries to be a philosopher, but miserably fails at it: all we get is bland and broken aphorisms.

Certain parts of the plot are unbelievable as well, or just don’t add up. Like when a main character dreams what other characters are experiencing light years away. It does get some quick justification involving an AI core, etc., but actually boils down to magic. None of the (human, scientific) characters seem to mind. It’s not hard SF for sure. There are problems with the general plot as well, logic, etc.

How this tedious book won the Locus and the BSFA and ends up in all kinds of lists is beyond me. Sure, there are interesting bits and pieces scattered throughout, and it has some highly imaginative SF ideas, but it lacked overall tension and suffered big time from all the problems listed above.

A journalist of the Washington Post wrote “Matches and perhaps even surpasses Isaac Asimov”, and someone of the NYT wrote “bears comparison with Foundation and Dune”. The publishing company didn’t hesitate to put such high praise on the back cover. All things considered, they are insults to both Dune and Asimov’s Foundation.

originally written on the 10th of October, 2014