Tag Archives: BSFA winner

EUROPE IN WINTER – Dave Hutchinson (2016)

Europe in Winter Dave Hutchinson (Langley)I read Europe in Autumn in 2016, and Europe at Midnight in 2017. I enjoyed them both a lot – Autumn was even one of my favorite reads that year, back when I read a book each week. But for some reason Europe in Winter has been lying on my TBR for nearly 5 years. I really can’t tell you why: I simply was drawn more to other books each time I needed to pick a new read.

The appeal of a review like this is limited: the third book in a series that was much praised, but that seems to have been a bit forgotten as well – even though this third one won the BSFA. Hutchinson published a final book, Europe at Dawn in 2018, as well as a solid space opera novella in 2017, Acadie.

Either way, if you haven’t read the previous books, by all means, read them – that is, if John le Carré-infused near-future thrillers appeal to you. The good thing is that you can stop after every installment: Hutchinson wrote it one book at a time, so while you do have to have read the previous books to enjoy each new installment, you don’t have to read the next one as Dave never planned a 3 or 4 book series.

That said: I had forgotten all the details of the previous books, and it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of this one. That’s because Hutchinson’s main strength in these books is twofold: the world building and his knack for short stories.

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EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

ExhalationI was conflicted about Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s much lauded first collection. There’s something about this guy: he can write – but are these really, truly stories?

So at first I decided to skip Exhalation: Stories, his second collection, published in 2019. But then I read a glowing review on Speculiction that dubbed the title story “one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written”. It also won three major awards: the Hugo, Locus and BSFA. As it is available for free on Lightspeed Magazine’s site, I decided to read just that.

It turned out to be a typical Chiang story: exquisitely crafted, good prose, convincing atmosphere, smart ideas. But sadly, for my taste, it’s also a bit too didactic, for two reasons.

It tries to convey a message – the clichéd ‘be thankful for the wonder of existence’, but more importantly, because it follows the typical Chiang template: he read some interesting stuff, and tries to mold his newfound wisdom into a story. Continue reading

STAND ON ZANZIBAR – John Brunner (1968)

Stand On ZanzibarJudith Merrill called Stand On Zanzibar “the first true SF novel”, and in his introduction to the 2011 edition Bruce Sterling calls parts “radically antinovelistic” and the book in general a “unique formal achievement”. Let me assure you, dear reader, such hyperbole statements are bollocks. I’ve written about some SF-readers’ real literature frustration before, and I won’t repeat all that here. It seems that some people still need to be told that what they are reading is really True Art, and really worth Their Time.

Sterling goes on to compare John Brunner’s first non-pulp novel to George Perec’s 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi in an attempt to make Brunner’s book more formally visionary than it actually is: it predates the English translation of that ‘real’ literature masterpiece by 20 years. While doing so, he almost casually brushes aside the formal comparisons to Dos Passos’ U.S.A., a trilogy from the 1930s that uses the same narrative techniques. Sterling claims Dos Passos doesn’t really count, as he was an “naturalistic” writer, and Brunner “antinaturalistic”. Content is not form in my book, so “unique formal achievement”? Yeah right. And in Dutch Louis Paul Boon already wrote an even more radical cut up book right after WW2.

Maybe it was unique in the context of SF. Brunner might have been the first speculative writer to put all these techniques together in one book: I’m not widely enough read in pre 1968 SF to verify this. But its partial techniques were tried & tested, in speculative fiction too. I’m guessing books that alternate the big storylines with smaller storylines or vignettes can be easily found. The habit of inserting made up texts from the future period somebody is writing about is not unheard of either: just look at this list of fictional books Frank Herbert quoted from in the Dune series. Asimov did the same in the early 50ies. And Tolkien had fictional song and verse too.

All this is not to shit on Stand On Zanzibar, as Stand On Zanzibar is a masterpiece.

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RIVER OF GODS – Ian McDonald (2004)

River Of GodsThere are a few, small instances of meta in River Of Gods, Ian McDonald’s near-future novel set in India, 2047. One of those makes clear McDonald ultimately writes about our reality, and not about made up stuff.

Something it could believe it had not made up itself. It wanted the drama of the real, the fountainhead from which all story flows.

So, what is the drama of the real that River Of Gods serves its readers? A lot of things, it turns out. The book features 9 different POV characters, who are presented one by one in a chapter each. Multiple viewpoint books have a tendency to take a lot of time before the story lines start to intermingle, but this is not the case in River Of Gods: after the introductory chapters, characters soon start to interact with others – some slightly, some full on. This is a good thing, since River Of Gods is complex enough as it is. (More on that complexity later.) These nine characters all feel real, and display real feelings. Drama aplenty in this 588-page book. Some of it violent and in your face, some of it poetic, all of it human. McDonald manages to evoke emotion seemingly easily, like in the quote below, lifted from a passage about cleaning out the house of a deceased mother.

He thinks of her house afterwards, of the terrible poignancy of her clothes and shoes on their hangers and racks, all unnecessary now, all her choices and fancyings and likings naked and exposed by death.

This sentence is so brutally true – everyone who helped in emptying the house of a loved one will recognize.   Continue reading

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS – Aliette de Bodard (2015)

The House of Shattered WingsThis is probably the book with the sharpest decline in quality I have ever read. The first half of its 399 pages was original and amazing. Sadly, the second half didn’t live up to what its author had set up. The House of Shattered Wings is the first book of Aliette de Bodard I’ve read, and I came to it with high expectations: most reviews are glowing. I was also intrigued by the world building it promised: a novel set in an alternative reality Paris, 20th century, in ruins after a magical war. The city is ruled by a few Houses, factions of fallen angels, arcane creatures that wield magical power, at least in this part of the world.

The first 100 pages are truly promising: the world, the characters and the mystery at the core of the story all seem interesting. There’s also beautiful prose, and awesome, intuitive systems of magic.

It left her hands, a barely distinguishable tremor, a pinpoint that became a raised line, and then a rift across the faded ceramic tiles that would tear the girl apart.

Yet after 100 pages more, it gradually becomes clear that the story is only build around one or two things: the mystery of who put a curse on the oldest and most powerful House, and the question of how the curse will eventually play out. When I reached the end, my main thought was: was this it? That’s all there is to it? That wouldn’t have been such a problem if there would have been character development, or a complex world, or depth to emotions. As you can guess, I found none.  Continue reading

THE CITY & THE CITY – China Miéville (2009)

The City & The CityI enjoyed The City & The City a lot. It was only the second book I’ve read by China Miéville. My first was Embassytown, and while that was fun, it was very flawed too. So, my expectations for Miéville’s most hyped book weren’t exactly high, and to make things worse, reading the comparisons to Kafka on the back put my inner-cynic on high alert. Still, it won 6 awards, and its premise really piqued my interest.

First things first, this is not really ‘fantasy’ fantasy. And for sure it’s not science fiction either. Some label this book as near-future, but it is most definitely not. The City & The City is simply speculative fiction. The novel is set in the timeframe of its publication: the very beginning of the 21st century, on our very own planet Earth, in a fictional Eastern European city that is a kind of double city. Two cities exist in and on the space of one, interweaving, but separate – Iron Curtain kind of separate. This is not to be taken as something magical, metaphysical, hallucinatory or fantastical. Both Besźel and Ul Quma are very, very real. While there is a sense of wonder for the reader, discovering both cities’ interwoven workings, it is all perfectly possible & explainable. It’s not New Weird fiction either – a genre tagged to some of Miéville’s other novels. There’s actually nothing impossibly weird about this double city, other than that it doesn’t exist in our reality. It could exist though, and that fact is one of the strengths of the book.

Something else it is not, is Kafka (*). It starts Kafkaesque though, and Miéville explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s influence in the preface. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the political, bureaucratic stuff is more part of the setting, rather than one of the themes. Another crucial difference with Kafka is that The City & The City isn’t an existential book. Continue reading

ANCILLARY SWORD – Ann Leckie (2014)

Ancillary SwordI liked the first book of the Imperial Radch trilogy, and I think this book might even be a bit better. Still, it’s different enough to be surprised anew – not something a lot of series writers manage to pull off. Leckie really shows she’s an original, crafty writer…

The main quality of Ancillary Sword probably is its subtle, subdued nature. Leckie manages to channel the formal, militaristic nature of the Radchaai society in the way she tells the story. Content and form are superbly aligned. Both the restrained prose and Leckie’s supreme command of narrative voice are something to behold. There never is any exposition that would be out of character, and because of that, our discovery of the world Leckie happens very, very slowly. This is a strength rather than a weakness, though.

Because of this, the moments we do learn stuff (about the Presger aliens, about mourning rituals, about certain habits of ancillaries) have a big impact, and remind us readers we don’t have a grasp of this world, although we thought we did. Leckie shatters our self-deception a few times, and we should be grateful for that. Add to that the fact that these moments are always small and oddly poetic. It’s like traveling through a barren wasteland, to discover a shoot of an orchid once in a while, of a bright bed of mushrooms. It shows the author’s tremendous restraint. It’s a talent, because books about the same subject matter could easily be Grand and overdone.

The same goes for the emotional impact Ann Leckie manages to create. Because there’s not a lot of character development, and the characters often feel wooden, at first glance the novel seems detached and cold. Yet in the end it turns out that it is very much about different kinds of love, and I was truly moved. It’s only natural that some of the characters feel flat and wooden, as they are essentially forms of AI. There’s nothing of the good-humoured, pleasant and even funny AIs and robots that populate so much of space opera. And again, emotions are painted sparsely, and again that enhances their impact. A line here, a line there, but so well chosen and precise. Masterly.

Leckie also understands humans (and as such bodies) very well. She makes a few interesting biological observations about the bodily needs of ancillaries that make these robotic characters truly flesh-y and vulnerable. When this happens, it again comes as a gemlike surprise, even as a shock. It shows courage, and feels like a breath of fresh air in the space opera genre.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the narrative voice in this book differs a bit from the previous one, but it is still highly original. If Leckie manages to continue this trend of narrative change in the third & final book, it’ll really be a tour de force.

Even more than Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword is a deadpan comedy of manners.

Mind you, Sword is not an easy read. It needs focus & concentration, and the middle part is slow indeed. Don’t let that scare you off. This is brave, original, moving literature. I’m very curious about the final volume: luckily it’s just out, so I don’t need to wait an entire year…

RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA – Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

Rendezvous With RamaAs a reviewer on Worlds Without End pointed out, this book is a bit of a mystery story. But, as a reader you can’t really participate in unraveling the mystery, you just have to follow Clarke’s lead. It’s an interesting world at first, with a real sense of wonder, but after about 150 pages it begins to drag, just because there’s no real story here, no character development, just one short chapter after another of exploring the big mysterious cylinder. So after a while, the book’s narrative shallowness starts to hinder the pleasure of exploring. The stale writing doesn’t help either. It does pick up pace a bit for the final 5th of the novel, but ultimately doesn’t deliver, with a disappointing ending.

Clarke is not a straight out horrible writer though: Rama is filled with some original, well thought out things. The ideas are what made Clarke the SF icon he still is.

Also technically it’s not all bad: the meetings of a council on Earth – monitoring the discovery – is a clever narrative device, that helps further the story with exposition that doesn’t feel forced at all.

Rendezvous is only 250 pages in a pocket edition, and since it’s a linear story without any complexity, it’s a quick read. As this is apparently one of the prime examples of a book about a Big Dumb Object, it’s a pretty interesting, non-demanding read for those interested in the history of SF. It’s also much better than that other classic BDO-story, Ringworld, and a lot more hard SF too. Still, I have to recommend Bank’s Excession for a really, really exciting BDO-book, with real characters, a thrilling story, grit, humor, and vivid writing. It just goes to show how relative winning 5 awards is.

originally written on the 25th of March, 2015

ANCILLARY JUSTICE – Ann Leckie (2013)

Ancillary JusticeThis is a clever book, with a few great, thrilling moments. What I like best of it is the cold, harsh nature of some parts of Radch society. The AI/ship part of the story is also well done, but it reminds me a bit of Banks’ ship minds and other AIs elsewhere to be called truly original. It’s distinct enough though, so no sweat there. Near its end, the book also features some good phrases on the (non-existing) freedom of the will: (the illusion of) choice is it’s most important theme. Leckie at first makes you think there are choices, but ultimately, not so. Cunningly done.

On the other hand, it’s not as epic as I thought it would be: it’s actually a pretty small story, without a lot of characters, exotic worlds, interesting technology, or notable aliens. Aside from one (crucial) part, the story of this book could have just easily been a political intrigue set in ancient Rome. It’s not really high concept space opera on a grand scale.

Much has been said about the book’s gender issue, but that isn’t crucial to the story at all. It’s fresh to have mostly “she”s instead of “he”s, and it works pretty well, but it’s not an important aspect that truly advances the story. (But: it’s not believable at all that a highly advanced AI cannot distinguish between biological gender, so Leckie should have edited out the parts where that happens, it could have been easily done without hurting the story or the rest of the gender stuff.)

Ancillary Justice is recommended, and I will eagerly read the sequel, but for now Leckie is not a space opera writer of the same caliber as Banks, as some reviews tend to suggest. She might become one, and although her writing is a bit wooden at times, this debut definitely proves she has great potential.

originally written on the 1st of February, 2015

THE FALL OF HYPERION – Dan Simmons (1990)

The Fall Of HyperionWhile the first book, Hyperion, can be considered as a thrilling collection of short stories, this book feels contrived and boring, written without much attention to style. And while the world building in the first book was definitely interesting, nothing much is added here.

Almost none of the characters have real development. In the first book, this wasn’t really a problem, since it were just short stories in a larger frame, but in this book, things get an even more shallow & caricatural vibe. Yet a drunken poet, or a tormented priest – a Jesuit, of course! – that ponders the decline of his religion aren’t that interesting for plot building. (On a sidenote, Dune had the Orange Catholic Bible and Zensufism, Hyperion has Zen Catholicism. Homage, or theft?)

Even more problematic than lacking character development, is that things are repeated & explained ad nauseam. Even after more than 100 pages in the book, stuff from the first book is repeated unnecessarily, adding nothing. A sentence like “Gladstone thought about Sol Weintraub and his wife Sarai and their beautiful twenty-six-year-old-daughter, returning from a year of archeological discovery on Hyperion with no discovery except the Shrike’s curse, the Merlin sickness.” is exemplary. There’s nothing new in this sentence – which wouldn’t have been a problem if it would have been well written, or contained nice imagery, or a worthwhile thought, etc. Yet with “beautiful” all we get is a vapid adjective.

The book also suffers from pseudo-philosophical insights and a heavy-handed poetic theme. I majored in poetry, but the entire John Keats things feels forced, and again, adds nothing to the dynamic of the story itself. It feels like a whim of the author, taking up too much page time. This sentence from the epilogue illustrates the problem perfectly:

I learned that poets aren’t God, but if there is a god … or anything approaching a God … he’s a poet. And a failed one at that.

Simmons tries to be a philosopher, but miserably fails at it: all we get is bland and broken aphorisms.

Certain parts of the plot are unbelievable, or just don’t add up, like when a main character dreams what other characters are experiencing light years away. It does get some quick justification involving an AI core and stuff, but it actually boils down to magic. Not hard SF for sure.

How this tedious book won the Locus and the BSFA and ends up in all kinds of lists is beyond me. Sure, there are interesting bits and pieces scattered throughout, and it does have some highly imaginative SF ideas, but it lacked overall tension and suffered big time from all the problems listed above.

A journalist of the Washington Post wrote “Matches and perhaps even surpasses Isaac Asimov”, and someone of the NYT wrote “bears comparison with Foundation and Dune”. The publishing company didn’t hesitate to put such high praise on the back cover. All things considered, they are insults to both Dune and Asimov’s Foundation.

originally written on the 10th of October, 2014

THE INVERTED WORLD – Christopher Priest (1974)

Inverted World

The Inverted World is a rather fun, quick read. However, the back cover promises a very surprising twist at the end. This doesn’t really happen, since it is all quite predictable. Moreover, the explanation for an important consequence of this twist (and hence the plot as a whole) is totally unbelievable, and that ruins the book, all things considered.

It could have been pretty clever with better editing, but now it only merits an “Okay, you guys sure were afraid of Nuclear Holocaust back in the seventies.”

Hard science fiction purists should avoid this, since the science part of this book is ludicrous.

UPDATE 5/2018 – I read this at the beginning of my exploration of science fiction. Having read more ‘vintage’ SF now, I think I would review The Inverted World totally differently. There’s a good chance I’d appreciate it a whole lot more, as I liked reading it, but felt cheated because of the ending. That’s because in 2014 I judged that ending basically only on its Hard SF merits, but I think I entirely missed the point by doing so. There’s an insightful review on Calmgrove that didn’t miss the point, and Chris also makes some interesting points in the comments.

originally written on the 14th of August, 2014