“History lives in the gap between information and the truth.”
Let me get this out of the way: Version Control – Dexter Palmer’s second novel – is BRILLIANT. Recurrent readers know that I don’t often slap on such high praise.
It might just be the best 2016 book I’ve read, and it might just be the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s either this or Zero K for both questions – I’m having a hard time deciding. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Then again, maybe Version Control might have one thing speaking against it that Zero K has less of. More on that later, especially as this one thing doesn’t really matter right now.
The book didn’t get a lot of attention from the online sci-fi community, so maybe a few introductory remarks are at hand. Version Control is a near-future novel, set in about 10 to 15 years from now. Rebecca Wright is the main character. She works in customer support for an Internet dating site, the same site where she met her husband, Philip Steiner. Philip is a physicist working on a “causality violation device” – a kind of low-key time machine one could say. His work has stalled his career and the physics community doesn’t really take him serious anymore. The couple has lost their son a few years ago.
While I don’t really feel like it, I can’t but start this review with an opinion on a minor event in the blogosphere some time ago. If you have no interest in a discussion of ethics in SF, and just want my opinion on Raven Stratagem, scroll down to the actual review at the very end. The first part of the text might also be of interest to those who haven’t read any of Yoon Ha Lee’s books, as the discussion is much, much wider than that.
About a year ago, 3 people in the so-called Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury posted reviews about Ninefox Gambit, the first book of The Machineries Of Empire.
Contrary to popular opinion – 9FG won the Locus for Best First Novel – those reviews were essentially negative, on what are essentially moral grounds.
These three individuals are not marginal voices in SF fandom. Before most activity on her blog stopped – as she overdosed on commercially-hyped SF – Megan AM of From Couch To Moon was one the most respected and influential online reviewers of SF. Nina Allan is a speculative author herself: her most recent novel The Rift won the BSFA and the Red Tentacle. Jonathan McCalmont was shortlisted twice for the BSFA for best non-fiction writer, and writes for Strange Horizons and Interzone.
For starters, here are four quotes that capture the essence of the argument, with links to the original texts. Clicking the links is worth your while, as the original pieces are extremely well written, differ in their opinions on the book in crucial respects, and all have a number of valid, lucid insights. I have no intention to go into all arguments, and do not claim these quotes represent the texts in full. They do however show a convergence over at least one point of criticism, a point I do want to examine thoroughly.
Posted in Reviews
Tagged 2010s, Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury, Ethics, Jonathan McCalmont, Megan AM, Nina Allan, Raven Stratagem, Review, Science Fiction, The Machineries Of Empire, Yoon Ha Lee
I bought David Lancy’s The Anthropology Of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings a few weeks after I learned I would become a father. It has been lying around for about two years, and as my daughter is starting to say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, now felt like the right time to start it. Verbally expressing preferences is a big deal on the road to personhood.
Lancy is a Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, who wrote and edited several books on childhood and culture, starting his own research in the 1970ies. This book feels like a summary of the entire field, and can be considered Lancy’s crowning achievement. He draws on his own research here and there, but the bulk of this book is based on Lancy’s reading of countless other sources, giving it a vast scope.
On the back cover, Barry Bogin of Loughborough University puts it like this: “the most comprehensive, and perhaps only, review of the human child in terms of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology. Based on the best of theory and field ethnography, it is essential for any study of human development and human nature.”
I read the 2nd edition, which adds over 750 new sources to the first edition that appeared in 2008. 750 extra sources: that should be an indication of this book’s thoroughness. There’s 104 pages of bibliography, plus a 6-page author index, a 5-page topic index and a 7-page society index – all small print. The text itself is 410 pages long, riddled with quotes from other studies.
When I learned that the author of White Noise – a staple of postmodernism – had written a science fiction novel, I was delighted. I thought White Noise was funny and profoundly human, a rare five star book really, so what would he do with a book on cryogenics? Most reviewers agreed that this new book was DeLillo’s best since Underworld – his big American masterwork – so that only made me more eager.
Calling Zero K science fiction is a bit of a stretch: companies that offer to freeze your body in the hope of future medical advances do exist, and have for quite some time. There is an amount of scientific speculation in Zero K, but do not expect the technology or the science to be the focus. Not that this matters much – SF readers with an open mind will find much to savor here.
The book’s structure is set up to lure the regular SF reader in: the bulk of the world building – so to say – happens in the first half of the book. We are introduced to The Convergence, a remote and secret compound where wealthy people choose to be frozen. The subdued sense of wonder is real, and the scenes, like the compound’s structures itself, are strange, detached, and at times even reminded me of Kafka. When it slowly turns out this book is not really a science fiction novel, but something entirely of its own, I couldn’t care less about its classification, and was entirely hooked.
A few chapters in I was more curious about DeLillo himself, and I read up on him before I continued. It entirely changed the way I framed the book: DeLillo was 79 years old when Zero K was published. Continue reading
The first book by Kim Stanley Robinson I read was 2312, and I was so impressed I read Aurora soon after that. In hindsight, I started with what must be his most ‘regular’ science fiction novels, one set on a generational starship, and the other in a high-tech future society spread out over the solar system. Since then, I’ve been mostly trying to read KSR in order of publication, and I enjoyed most of his earliest output too.
I wasn’t to thrilled about last year’s New York 2140 though, and before starting yet another near-future book with 1984’s The Wild Shore, I decided to balance things out a bit, and read the book published between 2312 and Aurora.
It’s interesting that Shaman is Robinson’s least speculative book – it’s not SF, but straight out historical fiction about the tribe of people who made the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, 32.000 years ago, during the Ice Age, in what is now the south of France.
Dave Hutchinson is best know for his Fractured Europe sequence – an excellent, gritty near future mixture of spy, noir and even fantasy. So far, I’ve only read the first two books, both of which ended up in my favorite lists of what I read that year. I thought a break from that series before I tackle Europe In Winter might shed some more light on Hutchinson as an author. And while this 103-page novella is not as successful or original as both Europes I’ve read, it’s still a good, entertaining read.
For all the talk about Fractured Europe, Hutchinson’s short story collections seem to have been forgotten in the mists of time: he published 4 of those as David Hutchinson between 1978 and 1982. When he returned to fiction that was largely unacknowledged too. His 2001 full length debut The Villages has a mere 7 Goodreads ratings. The Push, a 2009 Hard SF novella, was released in only 350 copies. It took another 5 years before Europe At Autumn really got things going. Today Acadie is even published by powerhouse Tor, who seem to have picked up on Hutchinson’s critical acclaim.
You Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.
Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.