Tag Archives: 2000s

NOVA SWING – M. John Harrison (2006)

Nova Swing“For the detictive, he thought, nothing is ever only itself.”

There’s a provoking quote by Harrison floating around on the web, although the original post seems deleted:

“The writer – as opposed to the worldbuilder – must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive – is it possible to receive – a fictional text as an operating manual? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the – purely functional – act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.”

I guess it’s from the same post as this quote:

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.”

Obviously this is all taste, and not law. It’s also no clear cut dichotomy, as there’s some worldbuilding in Nova Swing too, like in all other Harrison books I’ve read and will read. But as a piece of polemic poetics, Harrison succeeds to point sharply at one end of a spectrum.

It also says something about the difficulties I encountered while reading Nova Swing – a book that taxes the reader in an above average way. I had to pay attention, and while things got easier throughout to a certain extent, the first part of the finale was dense again, filled with sentences and scenes to reread and ponder. Not surprising, as it is set in “a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange”, a part of the so-called Kefahuchi Tract that fell to the surface of the planet Saudade in 2444AD – an age in which humans have spread out in the galaxy using FTL technology. Continue reading

THE KNIGHT – Gene Wolfe (2004)

The Knight gene wolfeSomeday I will reread and review the four parts of The Book of the New Sun – one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. The consensus seems to be that Wolfe never topped that, but the appraisal for his other work is less unisono.

My own experience is similar. The Fifth Head of Cerberus went down relatively well, as did Urth of the New Sun, and I liked the first two parts of The Book of the Long Sun – a lot, at times – but dropped out of the third.

Enter The Wizard Knight – a later work, published when Wolfe was 73. The nature of this work is a bit unclear: is this a duology or one novel in two parts? The Knight was published a few months before The Wizard, some say for commercial reasons – Kill Bill: Vol. 1 came out in october 2003 and might have set a trend. The omnibus The Wizard Knight was published fairly quickly, in 2005.

Lots of reviewers seem to treat this as one novel – it sure is one story. However, the back of my Tor paperback of The Wizard starts with this quote from Publishers Weekly: “The Wizard stands alone and might even be best if read before The Knight, but will surely drive readers to the first as well….”

So I think it is fair to review The Knight separately, as the first part of a series, but I’ll reserve my judgement about the full story for when I’ve read the final volume too.

After the review, I’ll make some remarks about Wolfe’s politics as a reaction on an essay of his about The Lord of the Rings that might be of interest to some readers, even if they aren’t interested in The Knight.

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DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD – Olga Tokarczuk (2009)

Drive your plow over the bones of the deadThis book came to my attention a year ago, when Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature – which was awarded in 2019, simultaneously with that of Peter Handke. One of four books of Tokarczuk available in English, the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published in 2018.

I was instantly intrigued by its title – I guess I still am a teenage metalhead first and foremost, and it’s hard to think of another title that captures the awe and worldview expressed in extreme metal more than this partial quote of English Romantic poet William Blake. His Proverbs from Hell – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – start with these lines:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

I’ll tell you a bit more on the excess & the wisdom in the novel after the jump.

This also struck me as a cousin of The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabó – an absolute masterpiece that also deals with an eccentric old female protagonist that’s something of a housekeeper, and similarly has a vibe that gently flirts with fairy tales & the mythic. The Door is one of my favorite books ever, so I had to check out this one too.

While Szabó’s book is superior, I had a great time reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Continue reading

RADIANCE – Carter Scholz (2002)

Radiance Scholz

Carter Scholz isn’t a prolific writer. He published a grim, realistic novella about an interstellar spaceship, Gypsy, in 2015 – one of my favorite SF reads. There’s a handful of other short fiction, and only 2 novels: 1984’s Palimpsests and this one, Radiance – an overlooked masterpiece.

Scholz doesn’t write to earn the butter on his bread, and that shows. Unlike so many authors who just churn out stuff that needs to please fandom and sales figures, he does what he wants. That results in singular fiction, and Radiance is a remarkable, brilliant, demanding novel.

Not science fiction in the speculative sense, it is a novel about science. Also the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ needs a caveat: important parts of Radiance are based in reality. It is a roman à clef set in a government lab in California, a veiled ,

centering on two nuclear physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War & start of the Dotcom Bubble, nuclear bombs & Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks, accelerationism, and the great scientific project of mankind. (quoted from Gwern’s impressive site on Radiance, that includes a free, annotated e-book edition)

I don’t normally do this, but I want to start with 2 pictures of the blurbs, because I feel they are not just the usual hyperbole taken out of context by the publisher, but really do the book justice, and, taken together, capture its spirit.

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REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

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SCHILD’S LADDER – Greg Egan (2002)

Schild's LadderI have to say I didn’t think Australia’s Greg Egan to be an important science fiction author – I have seen a few mentions of his 1994 novel Permutation City in a few lists over the years, but that’s about it. He got a Hugo for a novella, but overall he’s not a prize winner, and there doesn’t seem to be a big buzz when a new title of his appears.

But all those parameters are social stuff, and Egan is “famously reclusive”. This excerpt from his website paints his character a bit: “I do not approve of the practice of using quotes from authors on book jackets, since I believe it blurs the distinction between advertising copy writing and reviewing. I’ve never provided such quotes myself, or sought them for my own books. However, because I neglected to tell my new editor at Gollancz how I felt about this, the UK editions of Schild’s Ladder have some comments by Stephen Baxter on the jacket, alongside the excerpts from bona fide reviews of previous books. This glitch was my fault entirely, of course, and I’ll do my best to ensure that nothing similar happens again.”

I like that. Egan seems to be rigorous, a man of principle, and he doesn’t care for commercialism – he also doesn’t attend conventions or sign books, for instance. But enough about the social: what about the writing itself?

In that regard, it’s also no surprise Egan isn’t really popular: he writes very dense, hard theoretical science fiction. Harder than Seveneves, to give you a benchmark. Much, much harder than Kim Stanley Robinson. Even Blindsight was a walk in the park compared to this. That’s also because Egan’s writing generally focuses on the hardest of hard science: mathematics and quantum theory. Other themes include the nature of consciousness, “genetics, simulated reality, posthumanism, mind transfer, sexuality, artificial intelligence, and the superiority of rational naturalism over religion.”

I have to say, based on reading Schild’s Ladder: Holy Moly, Egan is one of today’s most important writers of speculative literature, and those who like their stuff only light and fluffy are missing out big time. This is highly stimulating stuff. When I was 150 pages in, I went on a quarantine shopping spree and ordered 5 other of his books.

I used to think the Culture of Iain M. Banks represented the creative pinnacle of imagining a transhumanist future, but consider that position revised: it seems Egan has picked up the baton a long time ago.

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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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TRANSITION – Iain M. Banks (2009)

Transition (red)

This is it, the last speculative fiction book of Banks I had to read. Surprisingly, Transition was marketed as an Iain Banks book in Europe, adopting his ‘non-genre’ moniker. Yet this would be classified as science fiction by most: a many-worlds thriller in a contemporary setting, so the American publisher decided to use Iain M. Banks instead.

I have often wondered wether I have changed a lot as a reader – Banks meant so much to me when I first started reading scifi – or if it’s just a coincidence my final three Banksian reads were unsatisfactory. His final 2 Culture books were fine, but Inversions and The Algebraist were bore-outs. Transition isn’t as bad as those 2 – it’s generally entertaining – but it has a few huge problems, making it rather pulpy. This critical Guardian review calls it an airport book, and I would concur: fun beach reading, as I tend to say, but not much more.

Negatives first, including something about an eternal orgasm.

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BLINDSIGHT – Watts (2006) & H IS FOR HAWK – Macdonald (2014)

BLINDSIGHT – Peter Watts (2006)

Blindsight

Blindsight is a contemporary classic of Hard SF. I’ve known about the book for years, but I was put off by the fact that it features a vampire – supposedly they did exist, as a kind of side branch of human evolution, and were resurrected using gene technology. I thought that to be very gimmicky. I also got the impression Watts likes to show off all the scientific papers he’s read, adding to an overall braggy vibe that didn’t appeal to me.

I did give The Freeze-Frame Revolution a shot though, a 2018 novella by Watts – review here. Turns out I liked that a lot, so I decided to take on Blindsight.

While it is not without problems, I enjoyed reading it a lot. Watts wrote a page turner about first contact. His ideas are often wild and especially the first two thirds of the novel are among the best the genre has to offer – if you don’t expect your reading to spoon feed you that is. Easy breezy reading it is not.

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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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THE ALGEBRAIST – Iain M. Banks (2004)

The AlgebraistPeople change. I’ve been reading SF for about a decade now, and Banks was one of my first loves. As I’ve explained in my review of Inversions, when he died in 2013 I still had a few of his books on my TBR, and I decided to savor them. Bad decision it turns out: much to my disappointment, I was terribly bored by The Algebraist. I stopped on page 242 of 534 and in hindsight I should have stopped at least 100 pages earlier.

I will never know whether I would have liked this book 5 or 10 years ago. A reread of some Culture novels will probably shed some light on that, but I cannot remember those books to have the problems I encountered here. Three and a half years ago I still liked Surface Detail, and I liked it a lot.

The Algebraist has drained my energy, and as a result I don’t even feel like writing a lengthy review – even though I usually like panning books that failed to connect with me. So let’s make it snappy.

There’s two main reasons why this space opera tome didn’t work for me.

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DEADHOUSE GATES – Steven Erikson (2000)

Deadhouse GatesWhen I wrote my review for Gardens Of The Moon, I didn’t have that much new to offer to readers familiar with the series, and instead I tried to convince possible new readers to give that book a go, as it was one of my favorite reads that year. This is the sequel: what to say about a 943-page book that is the second in a 10-book series, set in a universe co-created with Ian Esslemont – who also wrote another 7 books?

Let me start this review by something that could be also of interest to readers not familiar with the series, namely the philosophical foundations underlying the book, and presumably the entirety of  The Malazan Book Of The Fallen.

After that, I’ll try to voice my assessment of Deadhouse Gates as a work of High Fantasy fiction – the actual review, so to say. That might also be of interest to readers still pondering whether to start this series, as I didn’t feel this book to be as successful as Gardens Of The Moon.

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THE WARRIOR-PROPHET – R. Scott Bakker (2005)

The Warrior Prophet I dropped out of this book after 200 of its 600 pages, and that kind of makes me sad.

I really liked the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy: I read 54 books last year, and The Darkness That Comes Before was one of the 10 best.

This second installment is so much of a disappointment, I don’t even feel like explaining why. I’ll try anyhow, but I’ll keep it short.

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AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American GodsI’ve only seen the trailer of Starz’s adaptation of American Gods, but that firmly set the face of Ian McShane as default for one of its main characters – Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin. Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen in HBO’s brilliant – and sadly uncompleted – Deadwood. The mannerisms of that cunning brothel owner suit Mr. Wednesday well, and as books aren’t read in a vacuum, my Mr. Wednesday turned out to be an incarnation of Mr. Swearengen. Kind of fitting for a book about the dark side of Americana, and the casting people of Starz must have thought so too.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most famous and acclaimed book: it won the Hugo, the Locus Fantasy, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker award. Worlds Without End has it as number 6 of their most read books, and it’s on spot 2 of their list of SFF’s most nominated books.

I guess most people reading this know what the book is about: “gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them spirits and gods. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.” The book’s protagonist, Shadow, finds himself at the center of a conflict between the old and the new when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, just after being released from prison.

I’ve read the 10th anniversary edition, which added 12.000 words that were cut for the first version, and the praise on its back cover leaves no room for doubt: this is speculative fiction of the literary kind. I’ve written about speculative fiction’s obsession with Literature before, so I will not repeat that here, but rest assured, American Gods is no pulp indeed. Not being pulp does not make it a masterpiece either, so let’s start this review already. Continue reading

LIGHT – M. John Harrison (2002)

41atffz3pxlDamn: hard review to write.

China Miéville has said the following about Micheal John Harrison: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment. Austere, unflinching and desperately moving, he is one of the very great writers alive today. And yes, he writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.”

Light is the first of three connected books – The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It won the Triptree award, and its sequel Nova Swing won the Clarke and the PKD. The trilogy is also known as the Empty Space trilogy – Empty Space being the title of the last book, published in 2012. All three books are quite different, and Light can easily be read as a standalone novel.

Do I agree with Mièville? I’m not sure, and besides, I’ve only read this one book. But after reading Light, I’ll finish the entire trilogy. The same goes for The Centauri Device – a stand-alone space opera title published in 1974. I also bought Viriconium – a fantasy series of novels and stories started in 1972 and finished in 1985. So I’ll get back to you in a couple of years on that Nobel prize. In the meantime, let me try to convey the atmosphere of Light. Continue reading