Tag Archives: Clarke winner

NOVA SWING – M. John Harrison (2006)

Nova Swing“For the detictive, he thought, nothing is ever only itself.”

There’s a provoking quote by Harrison floating around on the web, although the original post seems deleted:

“The writer – as opposed to the worldbuilder – must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive – is it possible to receive – a fictional text as an operating manual? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the – purely functional – act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.”

I guess it’s from the same post as this quote:

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.”

Obviously this is all taste, and not law. It’s also no clear cut dichotomy, as there’s some worldbuilding in Nova Swing too, like in all other Harrison books I’ve read and will read. But as a piece of polemic poetics, Harrison succeeds to point sharply at one end of a spectrum.

It also says something about the difficulties I encountered while reading Nova Swing – a book that taxes the reader in an above average way. I had to pay attention, and while things got easier throughout to a certain extent, the first part of the finale was dense again, filled with sentences and scenes to reread and ponder. Not surprising, as it is set in “a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange”, a part of the so-called Kefahuchi Tract that fell to the surface of the planet Saudade in 2444AD – an age in which humans have spread out in the galaxy using FTL technology. Continue reading

THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Handmaid's TaleA lot has been written about this book. It’s on number 37 of American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, and that’s ‘challenged’ like in ‘banned on certain schools’. There has been lots of feminist discussion of the book too – both favorable and unfavorable. The content of this books mixes sexuality, hardline religion, totalitarian politics, reproductive oppression and American culture in one explosive cocktail: perfect tinder to kindle a debate among the participants of the culture wars.

I don’t have the time nor the energy to contribute a lot to those debates. Atwood seems to have written a book that makes people think, and I can’t object to that. As far as the feminist debate goes, I’ll only say this: I have the feeling this book neither vilifies men nor simply victimizes women, and as such I think it’s intelligent and balanced.

While The Handmaid’s Tale retains its appeal, and might even be considered a timeless book, it seems to breathe the atmosphere of the 1980ies: an atmosphere of uncertainty, and even pessimism: the onset of AIDS, the Cold War, pollution, nuclear accidents, Reagan and rightwing politics.

There has been some debate whether this book is science fiction or just speculative fiction. Atwood seems to favor the latter, but to me this seems not much more than a semantic discussion. SF or SF, it is a book set in the not so distant future (the end of 20th century, seen from 1985), with a certain dystopian feeling: pollution and the likes have caused extreme fertility problems in the Western world, and in the USA there also has been a “catastrophe” of undisclosed nature, a nuclear meltdown maybe. This has led to a political revolution, with all the members of Congress killed, the constitution suspended and an extremely totalitarian & theocratic regime installed, the “Republic of Gilead”.

I’m not sure the book worked for me.

It does succeed – masterfully even – to evoke an atmosphere. In that respect, the first person narration of a woman who is reduced to someone whose sole purpose is breeding works very well. The novel has a claustrophobic vibe, and just as the protagonist is kept uninformed and shielded off, the reader too only gets glimpses of the totality of the world and times the book is set in.

The prose is excellent, poetic even. Atwood manages to evoke a lot without that many words, and for me this is her true strength. The book is only 324 pages, but it’s not a light, quick read, as one needs the concentrate in order not to miss anything.

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 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

QUICKSILVER – Neal Stephenson (2003)

Quicksilver

Just a short review for this long book…

If you get through the first 200 pages Quicksilver pays off, but it still is a struggle at times: a bit too much details and characters, and dense prose. Nonetheless, there are lots of brilliant parts.

Also, if you aren’t that interested in Daniel at first: hang on, because in the second part and third part of this book he only plays a minor role, and two other, much more interesting characters are introduced.

All and all, very much worth the effort. My hunch is that the next book in the Baroque Cycle will even be better.

originally written on the 28th of August, 2014