Tag Archives: 2010s

MEMORY OF WATER – Emmi Itäranta (2012, transl. 2014)

memory-of-waterA few years ago I visited a specialized tea place in Barcelona, Spain. A quiet space, with dozens and dozens of fresh, handpicked, rare teas to choose from – each tea requiring its own precise water temperature & seeping duration. I don’t know anything about tea, and I asked for the “most complex” tea they had – thinking tasting tea was like tasting wine or whiskey. The woman serving me looked at me in surprise, at first not even understanding my question. It turned out tea is not about complexity at all. Those reviewers that complain about this book being boring, about having a plot in which nothing happens, similarly miss the point.

Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel is a quiet dystopian novel, set in a future where climate change has happened, fresh water is scarce and China has annexed Scandinavia. The 266 page book’s protagonist is Nario Kaitio, 17, and the daughter and apprentice of a tea master in a rural Scandinavian village, way up north. At the beginning of the novel, her father lets her in on a secret: he guards a hidden spring that has been her family’s responsibility for generations. This is not without danger: all water belongs to the military, and water crimes are punishable by death.


Fiction about futures with water shortage isn’t particularly rare. Itäranta does not break new ground, but nevertheless has managed to write a book with a voice of her own. Expect no action packed book like The Water Knife, nor something like the Fremen with a fully worked out water mythology as in Dune.

What you do get is Continue reading

CENTRAL STATION – Lavie Tidhar (2016)

central-stationIt strikes me as odd that people still are into this whole Literature vs. non-Literature distinction, especially people who review science fiction. Yet publishers like Tachyon make themselves complicit to this continuing confusion when they slap stuff like “magnificently blends literary and speculative elements … Readers of all persuasions will be entranced” on the back cover of their books.

It’s understandable Tachyon does so: it adds cultural credits and a veneer of Serious Art to Lavie Tidhar’s newest book. They hope it will help sell more copies of Central Station, also outside the speculative crowd. I think they are mistaken. More on that later.

First, a quick paragraph on my literary views. I don’t think a clear division between literature and non-literature can be upheld. What one can do is list criteria to judge how “good” a book is. People who have spent a couple of years at a university studying literature tend to like stuff like complexity, “depth” and originality. So yes, one could argue for a division between interesting books and superficial books. Whether a book is speculative or not isn’t a factor in that dichotomy. Of course, science fiction has a history in pulp magazines. True. But – newsflash: most books that people dub “literature” are bland and uninteresting too. Pulp is everywhere, not only in the speculative sphere. It’s Sturgeon’s law!

So, back to Central Station. Continue reading

NINEFOX GAMBIT – Yoon Ha Lee (2016)

ninefox-gambitI was a bit afraid to start this book. I craved some new, cutting edge space opera. But it looked liked one of the basic plot premises seemed like magic. The calendrical system people use determines what kind of technology – weapons included – works in a particular region?? Could be unbelievable & probably is prone to plot holes. I don’t like fantasy that dresses up as SF (exhibit Dark Orbit), but I decided to give it a go.

Ninefox Gambit is the debut novel of Yoon Ha Lee – famous short story writer. It’s also the first book in a trilogy, The Machineries Of Empire. While the basic story in this volume concludes nicely in 317 fast paced pages, the big story is only just beginning. Nothing new there.

How about that fear?

Continue reading

DEATH’S END – Cixin Liu (2010, transl. 2016)

deaths-endCultural differences exist. In the excellent article Wheat People vs. Rice People, T.M. Luhrmann discusses, among other things, insights from psychologist Thomas Talhelm, published in Science in 2014. Talhelm makes a convincing case for the fact that the difference between the individualism of the West and the more communal societies of the East can be traced back to their agricultural history. Rice needs a team effort to grow and harvest: rice fields “require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year.” Irrigation cannot be built and maintained by individual farmers, it needs a cooperating village. Wheat on the other hand can be grown much more easily: it “needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation.” It is hardly surprising that material circumstances shape cultures, but this particular link was eye-opening to me.

With all that in mind, it is also no surprise that Death’s End, the final volume in the Three Body trilogy, again shows humanity acting as one character. This is quite explicit: Cixin Liu inserts the image of humans acting like an ant colony a few times in the story’s 602 pages. It is not that Liu doesn’t recognize difference, it’s just that he focusses more on the end result of the whole.

Yifan said, “The universe contains multitudes. You can find any kind of ‘people’ and world. There are idealists like the Zero-Homers, pacifists, philanthropists, and even civilizations dedicated only to art and beauty. But they’re not the mainstream; they cannot change the direction of the universe.” “It’s just like the world of humans.”
Continue reading

THE GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

the-grace-of-kingsThe Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut. So, yes, this is my second DNF this year – the other’s here.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. I’m a huge fan of the short story collection Liu published earlier this year, and I liked his translation of The Three-Body Problem. It won the Locus First Novel, and there were a few positive reviews of bloggers whose opinion I respect.

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: clunky, crummy prose, and dialogue that’s bloated & unrealistic – fantasy world or not.

“Young man,” she mumbled after the retreating figure of Kuni Garu, “you may act lazy and foolish, but I have seen your heart. A bright and tenacious flower will not bloom in obscurity.”

or

But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.

or

Also, his double pupils always made others look away.

There’s so many words in this book. Words words words. Also, if the editors would have taken a marker and highlighted all the redundant words and phrases, the book would have looked like a syllabus from an undergrad who can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.

This book might be the best illustration I’ve come across of why an author should show and not tell – a critic’s cliché that I don’t like repeating in reviews myself, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. But if I’m honest, the telling as such is not really the problem: it’s how it is being told, and that’s repetitive and slow paced. It’s boring telling, indeed. There are pages and pages of things explained that were already clear. Explained, repeated, and explained again. Because of all that, Liu’s tale failed to connect emotionally, and I hardly felt anything, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make it so. As a result, the action felt stale and lifeless. Strange, as Liu’s short fiction proves he can write compelling, even horrifying scenes, using poetic, precise prose. Yet his long form feels like amateur hour.


Saladin Ahmed, author of a pulp turd, calls this book “a much-needed breath of fresh air” for epic fantasy. Saga Press slapped it on the cover, but forgot The Grace Of Kings actually isn’t really fantasy. It’s a rehash of Chinese history. Ken Liu talked openly about this, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the Chu-Han contention – the conflict 2 centuries BC that led to the birth of the Han dynasty – is revelatory. The two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, are more or less Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Here’s two Wiki quotes, that will be very familiar to people who’ve read the book…

Continue reading

EUROPE IN AUTUMN – Dave Hutchinson (2014)

europe-in-autumnI didn’t make a lot of notes while reading Europe In Autumn, the first book of the Fractured Europe sequence. That’s a good sign, in this case. Dave Hutchinson doesn’t try to do anything else than write a good book: there’s no philosophical pretension, no glaringly obvious attempts at social commentary, no need to teach us readers some moral lesson. It’s just 317 pages of solid storytelling – there’s not a single secondary thing that throws this book off balance.

No message doesn’t mean this book is without politics. Set in a not so distant future Europe, political disintegration – Brexit, Grexit, Scottish nationalism – has continued, as have cutbacks in the public sector. The Global War On Terrorism rages on. Schengen is dead. What exactly constitutes a nation has become increasingly murky – yet clearer too: money & violence.

At first Europe In Autumn doesn’t seem like SF – it’s more of a spy thriller: Alan Furst was one of Hutchinson’s inspirations. A thriller that starts in Kraków, Eastern Europe, and as such has a vibe similar to a lot of Cold War stories. There’s codes, and dead drops, and fake identities, and a cut off head in a locker. We are introduced into this world via a fairly standard plot device: the training of a new spook, Rudi – the main character. As the story progresses, the plot thickens, and the speculative nature of the book increases. It is extremely well done, and Hutchinson catches his readers by surprise. To say more would spoil the fun. Continue reading

THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES – Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (2016)

The Medusa ChroniclesI fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.

Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise DaysCentury RainPushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.


Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!

I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.

Exhibit A.
Continue reading