Tag Archives: 2010s

THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland (2017)

The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O.Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favorite books: Anathem. His last book, Seveneves, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. So I looked forward to this new tome – 752 pages – especially since the blurb seemed to promise good old-fashioned fun.

Yes indeed, fun! Anathem & Seveneves are dense, serious books, but The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. has the aura of a Dan Brown book: the discovery of old documents, secret government agencies, the past that turns out to be different from the official narrative, betrayal, mystery, magic.

Could it be that Stephenson again tapped into that youthful enthusiasm that characterized his brilliant sophomore effort Snow Crash and the outrageously bonkers The Diamond Age – a book that’s probably a bit too self-aware for its own good.

And what to think of the addition of Nicole Galland – with whom Stephenson (and a bunch of others) co-wrote The Mongoliad trilogy, and who primarily writes historical fiction? The dust jacket has this on their labor division:

Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.

Yet the colophon places the copyright solely with Neal Stephenson, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work”.

I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”

That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.

Did I get that?

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UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted 2Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest. Continue reading

BRING UP THE BODIES – Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up The BodiesReviewing a sequel is a bit harder: you can’t spoil too much for readers that haven’t read the previous book, and there’s the danger of just repeating oneself if the books are similar.

None of that in this take on Bring Up The Bodies – the much-lauded sequel to the equally lauded Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the troubles surrounding Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, and the downfall of Thomas More.

Spoiling stuff is not a problem, as most people are familiar with the most famous Tudor story. Book 1 ended with the execution of Thomas More, and this book will end with the execution of Anne Boleyn: it’s out in the open on the back cover too.

And I won’t be repeating myself when I discuss the core ideas of this book, as it’s way different in scope and focus.

But before that, let’s just get all this out of the way: Bring Out The Bodies was a thoroughly enjoyable read; it’s a stylistic triumph again; again top-notch pacing; the story is stranger than fiction, even more so in this book; and again, this is better than palace fantasy. And yes, also for this sequel Mantel had to make choices: historians will keep on debating about Cromwell’s role, so she does not pretend to write a biography, but historical fiction indeed.  Continue reading

NEW YORK 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)

New York 2140It’s no denying I’m a KSR fanboy. It’s also no denying I avidly share the same concerns as so many: climate change, rising inequality, the grip of finance on global politics. So I really wanted to like this book. And I did – up unto the first 250 pages. The remaining 363, not so much.

As the cover and the title make clear, New York 2140 follows firmly in the line of Kim Stanley Robinson’s near future novels: there was Washington & climate change in the Science of the Capital trilogy, refurbished in 2015 as the mammoth Green Earth, and California & three different scenarios in his early series The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990).

This time the sea level has risen spectacularly and New York has turned into a New Venice. The book follows nine characters that all live in the same building: a market trader, a police inspector, an environmental activist/nude model internet star, the building’s manager, two orphan boys straight from Huckleberry Finn, a lawyer and two coders trying to rig the Wall Street system.

At first the book is simply great. Robinson uses a mature, daring voice. It is his most ironic mode yet, his most openly self-aware book. He even addresses the reader straight on about his tendency to infodump. In between chapters there’s snippets of quotes from various sources about New York and its history, often funny. They work wonderfully well in tandem with the main text. New York 2140‘s subject is quite heavy, but the writing often manages to be light and breezy. I laughed out loud several times. KSR uses language creatively, with stuff like “thinking they are great gestalters” or “I pikettied the U.S. tax code” and a newly coined adverb like “realworldistically” – all examples of a playful intellectualism. A joy to read.

The story starts with a disappearance that has the smell of a high tech heist movie. There’s also an old school treasure hunt going on, and there’s the general vibe of 22nd century New York with all kinds of new technology dealing with the new water level. It all contributes to a Big Sense of Anticipation, especially since the story has 613 pages, and I know what KSR is capable of: I was set for a long, boisterous feast. (More on the cake later.)

But after a while I slowly started to notice some problems, and those problems only got worse. After I read the book, I started reading some interviews (collected on the excellent, extensive fan site kimstanleyrobinson.info), and those interviews confirmed and explained my suspicions of what went wrong.

In the remaining part of this review, I’ll quote a few parts from various interviews, and use those to explain why this will be the first KSR book I’ll probably sell at the local second hand shop. But – and this needs the extra stress – that does not mean New York 2140 will be a bad read for you, dear reader: that also hinges for a big part upon what news and non-fiction you have consumed the last couple of years, as I’ll explain in my next paragraph.

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EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT – Dave Hutchinson (2015)

Europe At MidnightWhen I reread my review of Europe In Autumn, I realized I’d actually written a review for Europe At Midnight already. Nearly everything I mentioned there holds true for this second installment in the Fractured Europe Sequence: no filler, solid prose, interesting geopolitical setting, some references to spy novels, no pretension, entertaining, fresh, snappy, imaginative, gritty. As you might know, Midnight is not a sequel to Autumn, but more of a companion volume.

So, what’s the new?

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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