Tag Archives: Literature

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?

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BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions VonnegutBreakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a pivotal book in Vonnegut’s career as an author. It’s his 7th novel, and the one published after his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. Published when he was 53, it took him years to write, with a lengthy pause due to chronic depression. In a way, it is his farewell to fiction, intending to abandon the fictional form and the novel as ways to change the world or get to the truth. He returned to novels quickly however, publishing seven more.

I think the book was difficult to write because Slaughterhouse-Five was so good, and Vonnegut knew it would be hard to top. Despite the long gestation period, he wasn’t happy with the result and “gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.” The critics were critical too, yet it remains one of his best known works – maybe in the wake of SH5‘s success?

Every artist has to deal with repetition, and Vonnegut tried to tackle it in this book by trying out two new things, but it are not much more than formal attempts, hardly changing the tone and the voice of his writing. The result is that Breakfast of Champions never rises above being generic Vonnegut. A quick dissection after the jump.

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IN DEFENSE OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS

Following an exchange of thoughts on a worst reads of 2020 post on Re-enchantment Of The World, I’ve decided to write a bit about writing negative reviews, and the abundance of positive reviews one encounters.


I’m sure some of the more critical readers of this blog are at times baffled by all the positive reviews they see for – let’s be frank here – generic, uninspired produce. That is very noticeable on Goodreads, where new titles often harvest +4 scores quickly, and also in the blogosphere negative reviews are fairly rare.

That most books published today are generic needs no proof. Still, let me refer you to this brilliant piece on Speculiction, that looks at book titles of Fantasy published around 2018. The proliferation of accessible word-processing, cheap laptop computers and ever better and cheaper printing methods have flooded the market.

Everybody with a creative inclination and enough spare time can write a book nowadays. Our culture seems to laud free expression and believing in your own, unique self, and that seems to trick lots of people into thinking they are artists too. The dedication of Herbert and Tolkien to write their big books by hand or on a typewriter simply isn’t necessary anymore today. Editing has never been more easy.

But while Joseph Beuys claimed that Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler in the 60ies, his beef was with the fact that not everybody could study at an art academy in Germany at the time. So rather than a call for everybody to start writing books, Beuys’ ostensibly democratic dictum should rather be read as a call to learn how to write books first.

Pulp and generic writing have always existed, but whereas the pulp around 1960 was published in short books of about 140 pages, today it seems growth is an inescapable law for books too – new titles averaging 450 pages instead, often as a part of a series. While they have a cultural veneer, big publishers are in the sales business first and foremost: selling more volume = more profit.

I could add e-readers, self-publishing and free blogging as factors, but the gist is clear: the speculative fiction reader is overwhelmed by new titles this day and age.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, by the way. I have followed the metal scene actively since the early 90ies, and also in metal there is an exponential proliferation of bands, albums, releases. For fringe genres like black or death metal there were only a handful of labels, and one could more or less keep up with everything released if one was so inclined and had the money or enough tapes to trade. But with success comes a bandwagon, and somewhere between 1995 and 2000 things mushroomed.

Similar causes are easily pointed at here as well, and technology is a big part of it: everybody can make a very decent home studio with just a laptop and one mic. Top notch recording & mixing software like Audacity and Bandcamp are free. Designing a decent album cover similarly isn’t that hard anymore as it was in the early days of MS Paint or xeroxed fanzines. On top of all that, Bandcamp and others have solved the problem of distribution. 

That leaves marketing as the sole problem – both for the aspiring metal band, as the big publisher of speculative fiction. And as technology, the internet and free time steadily become more available in developing countries too, the pool of creative humans becomes bigger and bigger with each passing day. 

Enter negative reviews. Continue reading

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD – Olga Tokarczuk (2009)

Drive your plow over the bones of the deadThis book came to my attention a year ago, when Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature – which was awarded in 2019, simultaneously with that of Peter Handke. One of four books of Tokarczuk available in English, the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published in 2018.

I was instantly intrigued by its title – I guess I still am a teenage metalhead first and foremost, and it’s hard to think of another title that captures the awe and worldview expressed in extreme metal more than this partial quote of English Romantic poet William Blake. His Proverbs from Hell – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – start with these lines:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

I’ll tell you a bit more on the excess & the wisdom in the novel after the jump.

This also struck me as a cousin of The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabó – an absolute masterpiece that also deals with an eccentric old female protagonist that’s something of a housekeeper, and similarly has a vibe that gently flirts with fairy tales & the mythic. The Door is one of my favorite books ever, so I had to check out this one too.

While Szabó’s book is superior, I had a great time reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Continue reading

HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

Human Trees

Melbourne’s Matthew Revert probably doesn’t ring a bell for most regular visitors of this blog – Human Trees is not exactly sci-fi. Yet he has made quite a name for himself within a small circle of experimental music lovers, with releases on seminal labels like Graham Lambkin’s Kye, and Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Known on a larger scale is his graphic design, Revert being “perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing” as noted by Gabino Iglesias in his glowing review of this novel.

Human Trees is Revert’s fifth book. It might be of interest to some speculative fiction fans, as some of those like their fiction weird and a bit surreal. This has a good dose of that – it is mainly set in the waiting rooms of a hospital where clocks and other timekeeping devices don’t function. I have seen other reviewers casually throw around names like David Lynch, Kafka and Beckett, so if those references trigger you: please read on.

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Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

A

Joe Abercrombie

Daniel Abraham

David Adger

Saladin Ahmed

Brian W. Aldiss

  • Non-Stop (1958)  (also published as Starship)

Poul Anderson

Isaac Asimov

Margaret Atwood

B

Paolo Bacigalupi

R. Scott Bakker

J.G. Ballard

Josiah Bancroft

Iain M. Banks

Stephen Baxter

Elizabeth Bear

Greg Bear

Bradley P. Beaulieu

Adam Becker

Robert Jackson Bennett

Jean-Marie Henri Berckmans

Alfred Bester

Jonathan Bikker & Gregor J.M. Weber

Michael Bishop

Louis Paul Boon

Thomas Boraud

Ray Bradbury

John Brunner

Allen Buchanan

Octavia E. Butler

C

Chris Ceustermans

Ted Chiang

Noam Chomsky

Arthur C. Clarke

Susanna Clarke

D.G. Compton

C.S.E. Cooney

James S.A. Corey

Blake Crouch

D

Kenneth L. Davis

Aliette de Bodard

Samuel L. Delany

Don DeLillo

Philip K. Dick

Seth Dickinson

Nico Dockx

E

Greg Egan

Steven Erikson

Andreas Eschbach

F

Jeffrey Ford

G

Neil Gaiman

Nicole Galland

Martin Gayford

Lisa-Ann Gershwin

William Gibson

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim

H

Joe Haldeman

Peter F. Hamilton

Wayne G. Hammond

Helene Hanff

M. John Harrison

Marlen Haushofer

Robert A. Heinlein

Ernest Hemingway

Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Frank Herbert

Werner Herzog

Cecelia Holland

Hans Werner Holzwarth

Leen Huet

Dave Hutchinson

I

Kazuo Ishiguro

Emmi Itäranta

J

Nora K. Jemisin

K

Anna Kavan

Guy Gavriel Kay

L

David F. Lancy

Ann Leckie

Yoon Ha Lee

Ursula K. Le Guin

Stanisław Lem

Cixin Liu

Ken Liu

Christopher Lloyd

M

Helen Macdonald

Hilary Mantel

Volker Manuth

Barry N. Malzberg

Arkady Martine

Cormac McCarthy

Ian McDonald

Richard McGuire

Patricia Anne McKillip

Christof Metzger

Rainer Metzger

Walter M. Miller Jr.

China Miéville

David Mitchell

Naomi Mitchison

Richard K. Morgan

Museum Frieder Burda

N

Vladimir Nabokov

Sylvain Neuvel

Larry Niven

Naomi Novik

O

Nnedi Okorafor

Brian Olewnick

P

Ada Palmer

Dexter Palmer

Jaak Panksepp

Frederik Pohl

Russell Powell  (as of 2021 known as Rachell Powell)

Richard Powers

Christopher Priest

R

Matthew Revert

Alastair Reynolds

Adam Roberts

Kim Stanley Robinson

Alex Rosenberg

Patrick Rothfuss

Joanna Russ

S

Brandon Sanderson

Carter Scholz

Christina Scull

Manfred Sellink

Robert Silverberg

Clifford D. Simak

Dan Simmons

Jan Six

W. Olaf Stapledon

Neal Stephenson

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Theodore Sturgeon

Larry W. Swanson (ed.)

Magda Szabó

T

Lavie Tidhar

Olga Tokarczuk

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Michael Tomasello

Dennis Tyfus

V

Jeff VanderMeer

Pierre L. Van den Berghe

Ernst van de Wetering

Brian K. Vaughan

Denis Villeneuve

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

W

Peter Watts

Andy Weir

H.G. Wells

Peter Williams

Gene Wolfe

John Wyndham

Z

Roger Zelazny