Tag Archives: 2020s

LAPVONA – Ottessa Moshfegh (2022)

Lapvona MoshfeghOttessa Moshfegh is well known for My Year of Rest and Relaxation – the book that topped most year-end lists in 2018. That book dealt with depression and solitude in contemporary New York, and this new one is quite a jump from that. Appealing to genre readers and literary fans alike, Lapvona has a few very small fantasy elements, and is set in a fictional fiefdom somewhere in medieval Europe.

One of the protagonists is Marek, a 13-year old disfigured boy who is abused by his father yet retains a strong faith amid the hardship of a shepherd’s life. To say much more would spoil the fun – although some readers might not think this book fun: Moshfegh incorporates scenes that boarder body horror, depictions of rape, humiliation and cannibalism. Lisa Allardice in The Guardian said it like this: “Her work takes dirty realism and makes it filthier.” Even though such filth might evoke some level of disgust, there is a clear playfulness and humor in the book too.

Not that is not serious stuff, or mere gore for the sake of gore. Let’s quote Publishers Weekly again:

Moshfegh’s picture of medieval cruelty includes unsparing accounts of torture, rape, cannibalism, and witchcraft, and as Marek grapples with the pervasive brutality and whether remaining pure of heart is worth the trouble—or is even possible—the narrative tosses readers through a series of dizzying reversals. Throughout, Moshfegh brings her trademark fascination with the grotesque to depictions of the pandemic, inequality, and governmental corruption, making them feel both uncanny and all too familiar.

Yes – this is fictional, even fantastic, but I have seldom come across a book that is so sharp and insightful about today’s world & our shared reality. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Continue reading

Advertisement

PERHAPS THE STARS – Ada Palmer (2021)

Perhaps The Stars Ada Palmer UK hardcoverThere are benefits to blogging: being part of a conversation, just as Ada Palmer with her writing wants to be part of the conversation. When I was on the brink of finishing Perhaps The Stars, Agnus Burke – from the excellent Utopia in the Works, a blog focused on rereading Kim Stanley Robinson – commented on my review of The Will to Battle, the previous book in Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. That comment helped me tremendously in pinpointing exactly what I wanted to say in this final review.

Before I get to that, a short recap for those of you who haven’t read the previous reviews. Perhaps the Stars is the fourth and final book of Terra Ignota, a series that started with Too Like the Lightening, a book that blew me away and that I rank among the best books I’ve read – in my review I try to explain why.

Book 2 and 3 were excellent as well, but not fully on the level of Palmer’s debut. And so I wrote lengthy analyses, trying to spell out my feelings. 8,600 words on Seven Surrenders, most notably on the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D. and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building. And 6,400 words on The Will to Battle, on the epistemic nature of the text & its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world, and about J.E.D.D.’s problematic motivation for his involvement in the coming war – linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem.

These reviews are a testimony of an ongoing reading process, and I wouldn’t have written certain parts with what I know in hindsight. I don’t think that’s a problem, as they serve as a mapping of sorts to the problems Palmer presents her readers – she has been vocal about one of her goals: getting people to think and engage with these books. So I won’t alter these reviews retroactively, that would defy their pondering, searching nature – except that I will add one remark to my review of Seven Surrenders, out of intellectual fairness.

Now that I’ve finished the full series, this final review – 5,500 words – will also serve as my thoughts on the full series, and for those thoughts I’ll start with Burke’s comment. I’ll also discuss some other stuff that wasn’t fully to my taste this time, and I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on the trolley problem itself & on a few of the series’ gender aspects.

In short, I think Palmer did an amazing job – an insane amount of work – crafting her narrative construction, providing tons of great ideas and sets and characters and twists and genuine moments of awe – but, and this may seem paradoxical for a novel full of really insightful stuff, I think the main philosophical foundation of the four Terra Ignota books is uninteresting and unproductive. How’s that for a cliffhanger?

Continue reading

ZENDEGI (2010) & DISPERSION (2020) – Greg Egan

The main dish this time is Greg Egan’s novel Zendegi, a rich brew of near-future Iran, metaverse gaming, AI-modeling, mind-uploading and family tragedy – very human. It’s a bit of an atypical title in Egan’s oeuvre, and totally different from 2008’s Incandescence.

I’ll end with an appraisal of Dispersion, a fairly recent 158-page novella about a breakdown in a pastoral-ish society with 6 factions that operate more or less in different dimensions, out of sync most of the time. Egan demonstrates that the scientific mindset is the way out, not distrust and tribalism.


ZENDEGI  (2010)

Zendegi Greg EganI enjoyed Zendegi, even though the novel could have been better. Egan offers a story that tries to do a lot, which makes for a diverse reading experience. At first it is a near-future political thriller set in Iran, and it morphs into a story that combines a family tragedy with stuff about differing cultures, AI and mind-uploading.

Egan admits in his notes that the first part of the book “was always destined to be overtaken by reality”. He finished it “in July 2009, a month after the widely disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad”, followed by massive demonstrations and brutal crackdowns. Even though what Egan described in a fictional 2012 didn’t come to pass, he expressed the hope “that this part of the story captures something of the spirit of the times and the courage and ingenuity of the Iranian people.” It is no spoiler Egan’s future Iran more or less embraces modernity again. Continue reading

THE HIGH SIERRA: A LOVE STORY – Kim Stanley Robinson (2022)

The High Sierra Kim Stanley Robinson coverMy fondness for Kim Stanley Robinson is no secret. I’ve only been disappointed by two of his books: The Memory of Whiteness, and Red Moon – which I didn’t even finish. And while I haven’t read all of his novels – 6 to go – whenever he publishes something new, I instantly buy and read it. Even if it is something as seemingly bizarre as a non-fiction book about hiking in the Californian Sierra Nevada.

It’s marketed somewhat as an autobiography as well: “Robinson’s own life-altering events, defining relationships, and unforgettable adventures form the narrative’s spine. And he illuminates the human communion with the wild and with the sublime, including the personal growth that only seems to come from time spent outdoors.”

Well – I think that part of the marketing is a bit off, but nonetheless I enjoyed reading this book. I’ll say a few words about why I did in a second, but let me first quote a part of the marketing blurb that is true: “a gorgeous, absorbing immersion in a place, born out of a desire to understand and share one of the greatest rapture-inducing experiences our planet offers. Packed with maps, gear advice, more than 100 breathtaking photos, and much more, it will inspire veteran hikers, casual walkers, and travel readers to prepare for a magnificent adventure.”

Continue reading

TERMINAL BOREDOM: THIS IMMORTAL INCAL (3 short reviews)

Taste is a strange thing. We all know it, yet it continues to amaze me how different it can be, even in between people who often align. This post collects some thoughts on 3 books that were highly recommended by other bloggers whose tastes at times tend to be similar to mine.

As you can guess, none of the three titles – Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki, This Immortal by Zelazny and The Incal by Jodorowsky and Mœbius – worked for me.

In each case, I advise you follow the links to the other blogs to check out the other reviews – otherwise you might miss out on a book that could be a gem for you.


TERMINAL BOREDOM – Izumi Suzuki (2021)

Terminal Boredom SuzukiAccording to Jesse from Speculiction, this collection of short stories was the best book he read published in 2021, and he gave it 5 stars – which doesn’t happen much on his blog. Also Ola from Re-enchantment was generally impressed, albeit not as much.

Terminal Boredom collects 7 existential science fiction stories written between the mid-70ies and the mid-1980s, before Izumi Suzuki committed suicide in 1986, aged 36. Apparently she is a bit of a countercultural icon in Japan, and she had a tumultuous life, working as keypunch operator, hostess, nude model, and actor – both in pink films as in avant-garde theater.

It is the first time her work appears in English, and the stories were translated by 6 different people: Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O’Horan.

It’s interesting that this collection is framed in feminist terms, many reviews stressing the gender content. I think this framing is more dictated by marketing in our own times than the actual foundations of the stories themselves. While gender is a theme, no doubt, I would not say it is Suzuki’s focus, not at all.

Continue reading

PACIFIC STORM – Linda Nagata (2020)

Pacific Storm Nagata

Linda Nagata published her first book, The Bohr Maker, in 1995, and she is best known for her “nanopunk” novels – a genre I didn’t know existed, or at least, a moniker I wasn’t familiar with. Nanopunk is basically a subgenre of transhumanist science fiction, set in the far-future with lots of nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

I had been eyeing her work for some time, nearly buying Edges from 2019, the first in the Inverted Frontier series. Not sure what held me back, but when I saw she’d published this in 2020, I decided to give it a go.

Not that this is nanopunk: Pacific Storm is a near-future thriller set in Hawaii – Nagata has been living there herself since she was 10.

The book is set at least 20 years from now, possibly even a few decades later. The United States has undergone major political change as its current political parties don’t exist anymore, and it has huge debts so China, so much the US government is even willing to lease control of Hawaii to the Chinese in exchange for debt relief.

Set against the backdrop of an oncoming major hurricane, Ava Arnett, a Honolulu cop, gets sucked into a terrorism plot, prompting her to question the trustworthiness of the government AI she relies on to predict human behavior. Arnett – like Hawaii itself – is still haunted by the consequences of a devastating hurricane that hit the island nine years ago.

Pacific Storm‘s blend of politics, AI, conspiracy, extreme weather, hobbyist gene-editing and surveillance state smart glasses offers much to like. Nagata publishes her books on her own imprint – Mythic Island Press – and I think Pacific Storm could have very well become a bestseller if a major publisher would’ve thrown some serious marketing funds at it. Having said that, can I also recommend it?

Continue reading

TERMINATION SHOCK – Neal Stephenson (2021)

Termination Shock Neil Stephenson ToppingScience Fiction has always been about its own times too, and so today Cli-Fi – a term coined by Dan Bloom – is taking center stage more and more. While there is Cli-Fi that’s not speculative, so far most of it has been part of SF, and lots of SF authors will have to incorporate some of its elements, whether they want to or not: anybody writing about future Earth will have to deal with climate change one way or another. While we continue our journey into the 21st century, the Change will become less and less speculative, turning what started as a speculative genre into dead serious realism. Horror possibly. It’s clear that fiction about the changing climate is here to stay, in whatever form.

Over the past few months, I’ve read 3 high profile authors’ most recent takes on the genre: Bewilderment by Richard Powers, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson’s brand new Termination Shock.

I’ll briefly compare these three offerings, but let me first situate Termination Shock in Stephenson’s larger oeuvre, and also say something about its general merits. There will be no spoilers, but I’ll have to talk about the book’s core message – as that needs more than just a novel, but a megaphone too.

Continue reading

BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers (2021)

BewildermentEvery intelligent, well-informed human that trusts the global scientific community and that recently became a parent undoubtedly will have had the same question staring him or her in the face: why did I knowingly bring a child into this world, a planet on the brink of catastrophic climate change, during the onset of the 6th mass extinction?

Richard Powers, 64, having no children, also felt the need to write a book related to that 21st century existential parental question. On the back cover it is posed like this: “At the heart of Bewilderment lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperilled planet?”

I will end this review with my own answer to these questions – being a father of two toddlers. Before that, there are 3000 words about Powers’ attempt – ultimately a failed and defeatist answer, in a novel that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I’ll try to judge the book by the ambition that Powers’ expressed himself in various interviews.

But first, the question of genre: Bewilderment should appeal to most science fiction fans, at least on paper.

The father-protagonist is Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who theorizes about life on exoplanets. Aside some talk about his actual research models, spread throughout the 278-page novel are about 25 short chapters that speculate about possible alien worlds.

The book is set in a slightly alternate today – not in a near-future, as I have seen claimed elsewhere. The novel’s story takes about one year, and Earth’s population is said to be 7.66 billion, so that would be somewhere in 2018. It’s basically our own time, but there are a few alternate events concerning a thinly veiled president Trump, and some existing technology that is used in a bit of a different manner as today. There are only three instances of such technological futurism, two of which are just details and perfectly possible already. The third however is central to the story, and while the technology does also already exist today – decoded neurofeedback (DecNef) – its described effects are totally speculative, even within the boundaries of the story itself, and as such it gives Bewilderment also a sparse magical-realist vibe.

Aside from the speculative content – I’d say this is slipstream rather than full blown sci-fi – Powers also incorporates references to science fiction, most importantly to the 1959 classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Theo Byrne is vocally proud of his collection of 2,000 science fiction books, Stapledon‘s Star Maker was “the bible of my youth”, and also the Fermi paradox is one of Bewilderment‘s themes – yet another staple of science fiction.

What’s not to like, fandom?

Continue reading

DUNE: PART ONE – Denis Villeneuve (2021)

Dune Part One Poster While this is not a movie blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the new Dune film that was released yesterday – except in the USA, where it will be released on October 22. For those that are interested, I’ve invested quite some time writing about Frank Herbert’s books and my reread of the Dune series in particular, resulting in a series of long posts – links at the end of this review.

What I will not do is compare this movie to Denis Villeneuve’s other sci fi work, as I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 or Arrival – even though I did read both stories on which those were based. I will also refrain from commenting on what David Lynch did or didn’t do better with his 1984 adaptation – I’ve seen that movie multiple times, but it has been years, and my memories of it are sketchy to the extent I can only say two things about it: I liked it, but the movie probably won’t make much sense to somebody that hasn’t read the book.

I’ll simply try to give an honest appraisal of how I experienced the new film, based on just one viewing. I have no intention of writing a lengthy analysis, nor add to the Twitter bloodsport on Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Keynes or the White Savior Myth.

So, is the movie any good? Does it do the book justice? The short answer is a double yes, loud and clear. The longer answer needs a bit more words. No spoilers, I promise.

Continue reading

HOCKNEY: SPRING CANNOT BE CANCELLED (2021) & A CHRONOLOGY (2020)

I have to confess David Hockney always remained a bit under my radar – when I was younger and wilder, I probably thought him too conventional or so, and more importantly, it seems as if the museums I’ve visited the last 20 years in the various cities around the world didn’t have many of his paintings on display. I really cannot recall seeing a Hockney in real life – although I must have, I’m sure. But when I learned of the Van Gogh & Hockney exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2019 it was as if I was struck by lightning. Hockney’s landscape paintings of the last 15 years are among the best landscapes I know in the history of painting.

I’ve tried to remedy my ignorance by reading about him, and I have to say, I’m very much looking forward to the double exhibition in Bozar, Brussels, later this year.


DAVID HOCKNEY. A CHRONOLOGY. – Hans Werner Holzwarth, David Hockney, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima & Lutz Eitel (2020)

This budget Taschen book – 20 euros, like the stellar Basquiat in the same 40th Anniversary Edition series – is a marvel. 511 pages, excellent reproductions and an authoritative, clear text by Lutz Eitel.

IT is a newly assembled edition from the SUMO size David Hockney: A Bigger Book and the chronology volume that accompanied that expensive limited edition mammoth. It is the only career spanning monograph in existence I know of. There’s 2007’s Hockney’s pictures by Thames & Hudson, but that is very, very low on text.

Effectively organized as a chronology, it starts at the end of the 50ies up onto 2016, and has about 1.5 page text for each year, followed by about 8 to 10 pages of art. Hockney’s full oeuvre is on display: paintings, water colors, drawings, photographic assemblages, stage designs, iPad drawings, etc. Continue reading

2 BOOKS ON BRAINS: ‘HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS’ (2020) & ‘BEAUTIFUL BRAIN: THE DRAWINGS OF SANTIAGO RAMON Y CAJAL’ (2017)

I’m rereading The Book of the New Sun at the moment, and while I first thought to just read Shadow of the Torturer, it felt wrong to write a review of the first volume only, so I’m going to finish all 4 volumes and then write on the entire thing.

That means no new speculative book review for now, but two very different books on the brain. First a scientific account of rationality and neurobiologic algorithmic decision making, after that an art-science hybrid: a catalogue of historical pen and ink drawings by neuroanatomist Cajal, which includes a biography and some other text on the matter.


HOW THE BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS – Thomas Boraud (2020)

This is the English edition of the 2015 French publication Matière à décision, but updated with new data, some mistakes corrected and also partly rewritten structurally – with a new chapter added as the most striking change. As such, I’d very much call this a 2020 book indeed, and that’s of note in an ever evolving field.

The basic question this book tries to answer is whether neurobiological science supports the case for rational decision-making. It does so by using a bottom-up approach, “beginning with the neural matter and tracing the journey of how decision-making might have emerged from the physicochemical interactions between its components.”

This book is a strange hybrid. It both tries to give a short overview of the philosophical debate and the history of the science involved – including a bit of behavioral economy – and it tries to answer the question using an algorithmic model based on actual vertebrate brain science. Continue reading

CONTINGENCY AND CONVERGENCE : TOWARD A COSMIC BIOLOGY OF BODY AND MIND – Russell Powell (2020)

First a general overview & appraisal of the book, and after that there’s a fairly lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of nuggets of wisdom I want to keep on record, and those could be interesting for you too.


For starters, the summary on the back: “In this book, Russell Powell investigates whether we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere. Weaving together disparate philosophical and empirical threads, Powell offers the first detailed analysis of the interplay between contingency and convergence in macroevolution, as it relates to both complex life in general and cognitively complex life in particular. If the evolution of mind is not a historical accident, the product of convergence rather than contingency, then, Powell asks, is mind likely to be an evolutionarily important feature of any living world?”

Or, as the MIT website states it in short: “Can we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere?”

The book doesn’t presuppose a lot of working knowledge: Powell takes care to explain all the concepts and the history of science & philosophy one needs to understand his arguments. As such it is perfectly self-contained, BUT, mind you: this is hardcore stuff, it is not a popular science book at all. It has 280 pages of carefully and tightly argued text, there’s not a lot of redundancy, not even on the sentence level, and as such keeping a search engine at hand while reading this is no luxury. Continue reading

PIRANESI – Susanna Clarke (2020)

PiranesiMy expectations for Piranesi were lukewarm. Clarke’s short story collection wasn’t fully successful, and the early descriptions of this new novel hinted at a dreamlike, labyrinthine, magic-realist puzzle – not really my cup of tea.

So I entered The House with a certain reservation, but Clarke’s narrative powers quickly swept me away.

Not that this book is a 100% triumph, but it would be foolish to dwell on its few, minor flaws too long. Taken as a whole, Piranesi succeeds brilliantly, and easily stands among the very best I’ve read this year.

I do think this review is safe for those who haven’t read it yet, but as I will try to unravel some of the book’s philosophical underpinnings, there will be mild spoilers – even so, nothing you can’t guess after about 30 pages in. I will not say anything about its relationship with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There are links aplenty – disenchantment for one – but Piranesi deserves to be treated & read as its own thing first.

Continue reading

THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE – Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)

The Ministry for the Future Robinson“This discursive battle, it’s very important.”

This is it. The final big KSR novel. I dreaded starting it, to be honest. Yet another climate book: don’t we know that story? His two previous ones were letdowns: New York 2140 was okay, but ultimately transparent, and Red Moon even formulaic: Stan seemed to have run out of steam. 

I think Robinson’s decision to stop writing long novels liberated him. And so his final big one is both a synthesis and a departure, and most importantly: totally unapologetic KSR, and a feast as such. It’s also a paradox, a book that is “desperate and hopeful in equal measure”, as the dust jacket has it. (Update May 2021 – Cory Doctorow claims that KSR changed his mind and is writing novels again.)

Some might think it not enough of a novel – a long essay perhaps. Some might think it boring, or preachy. I think none of that applies. I think it’s brave, fast-paced, and subdued. It’s a story for sure, and it builds on the legacy of that other great science fiction novel: 1930s Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. I loved The Ministry for the Future

The only criticism I can muster might be that Robinson’s hope might be non-sequiturish, so to say. Aren’t we doomed anyway? Who knows? Who will tell? “There are many realities on a planet this big.”

In the remainder of this review – about 3000 words – I will elaborate on all of the above, backed up by quite a few fragments from various recent interviews with KSR. It’s a joy to have a writer being so open & explicit about his thought process.

Continue reading

DÜRER & BASQUIAT (2019 & 2020)

Two very different art books this time. Next up will be a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s massive new cli fi novel The Ministry of the Future – I’m halfway through and enjoying it a lot. It’s totally unapologetic KSR, interesting both for its form as well as its content, and a swansong of sorts.


Albrecht Dürer MetzgerALBRECHT DÜRER – Edited by Christof Metzger (2019)

This catalog was published to accompany a huge Dürer exhibition in the Albertina in Vienna from September 2019 to January 2020.

As far as I can tell, this book doubles as the new go-to publication on Dürer as a draftsman and print maker – with the following caveat: Dürer has a legacy of nearly 1000 drawings, about 90 paintings and hundreds of woodcuts, and 3 theoretical books, so do not expect a full overview in these 488 pages. This is no catalogue raisonné. Continue reading