Tag Archives: Nebula winner

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN – Gene Wolfe (1980-83)

The Shadow of the Torurer (Maitz without title)This is a 5500 word essay on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.



The first time I read The Book of the New Sun must have been somewhere in 2011, and it has remained a strong favorite in my mind ever since, easily top 5 ever. As The Folio Society recently published a more or less affordable version of their limited edition treatment of the book, I decided that was a good excuses to whip out too much cash on a book I already owned, and reread the entire thing.

Much has been written about Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, and I have no intention whatsoever to add to certain debates surrounding these volumes – on the contrary: to me these debates miss an important point, as I will try to explain later.

Deep down I was reluctant to start the reread. My other encounters with Wolfe’s prose haven’t always been fully successful, and I feared The Book of the New Sun to be a lesser affair than I remembered. I have to admit that to a certain extent is was – but that is not to say it became a bad book: I still rank it among my favorite reads.

Before I’ll get to the bulk of this review, first some introductionary remarks to those unfamiliar with the book.


The Book of the New Sun was first published as 4 separate volumes: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Two volume editions have been published as Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, and single volume editions have been published as The Book of the New Sun, and also as Severian of the Guild.

When I started rereading it, I intended to review only The Shadow of the Torturer, and then turn to some other books before starting the second volume. But it quickly dawned on me such a review wouldn’t do the novel justice. A review of Shadow might have worked if it had been my first read, but since my memories of the other volumes – not perfect, mind you – had such a gravitational pull, I could only finish the entire thing before writing this. That is not unlike Wolfe himself, who intended to write a novella, but when is was done it turned out to be a tetralogy, only finishing the final draft of the first book when he had finished the second drafts of the remaining 3 parts.

Because he was pressured by his publisher, Wolfe published a coda to this story in 1987, The Urth of the New Sun. I will reread that too someday, but I feel I shouldn’t take it into account for this review, as Wolfe didn’t conceive of it while he wrote this. The same goes for the two related series The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun – published between 1993-1996 and 1999-2003. I won’t take their subject matter into account either: they weren’t part of the quadruple canon, and as such can’t really be used to weigh the original artistic merit. I feel that lots of the interpretations of TBotNS based on certain things in the later series could be considered a form of Hineininterpretierung.

Those who dread being sucked into a 12 book ‘Solar Cycle’, such fear is unwarranted. The Book of the New Sun was conceived as a stand-alone, and if you like it a lot, there’s no harm in reading the coda, Urth. But Long Sun and Short Sun are generally considered works of lesser quality – except by hardcore Wolfe fans – and their main stories are only very tangentially related. I’ve read the first 3 of Long Sun (reviews here), but chances are I’ll never start its final book.


The Book of the New Sun is a dying earth novel, set on Urth, a far-future version of Earth, or an Earth before our own, in some different time cycle. It’s a world that has lost most scientific abilities, and resembles a society straight out of a fantasy novel – even though remnants of technology exist, and certain of the upper classes still have access to flying ships. In the backdrop of the story, there are aliens that try to enslave humanity, and yet other aliens that want to help our race to revive the sun, which has dimmed to such an extent stars are even visible by day. The moon’s light is green, as it has been terraformed in the past, but humans forgot when and how, and can’t get there anymore.

It is the first-person narrative of Severian, a young man belonging to the guild of the torturers – “The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence”, who is disgraced and exiled, and ultimately “backs into the throne” seemingly by accident, and turns out to be something of a messiah. Like in other works by Wolfe, Severian is an unreliable narrator, but more on that in a minute.

The Book of the New Sun is considered by many as one of the towering achievements of science fiction or science fantasy, and I’ve read serious people putting it on the same level as Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. It won lots of awards, and tends to be found near the top of many lists of best speculative fiction. Word has it that this weird and strange book can only be fully understood after three readings.

So what to write about this illustrious work?

I will talk first about its religious themes – Wolfe was a devout Catholic – and how the question whether this book can be enjoyed by agnostics or atheists too ties into the trap that Wolfe has set, a trap that has ensnared many of those writing New Sun exegesis on message boards, Facebook groups, mailing lists and Reddit.

As an intermezzo, I’ve written a short passage about Severian’s outlook on free will, and I’ll end with some thoughts on my rereading experience, and my current appraisal of New Sun – will I read it a third time?

This entire text is spoiler free.

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TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

TehanuSome 17 years after Le Guin completed the original Earthsea trilogy, she returns to the isle of Gont. This time she focuses on Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan, but also Sparrowhawk remains an important character, and Arren from The Farthest Shore plays a part as well.

It’s commonly known Le Guin wrote this book partly to rectify the gender imbalance in the initial trilogy, and in the fantasy genre in general. Indeed: wizards and mages are Men, and females with magical powers generally are foul witches or servile priestesses. The medieval setting of most fantasy stories is filled with patriarchy and Kings – nobody needs to be convinced of that. So yes, in today’s parlance, Tehanu is woke – but not fully woke, as I’ll try to explain.

Before I write a bit on the book’s political issues, let me try to give an overall appraisal of Tehanu, without spoiling the first three books.

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THE GODS THEMSELVES – Isaac Asimov (1972)

The Gods ThemselvesFrom 1958 tot 1972 Asimov did not write science fiction, so The Gods Themselves was a sort of comeback, and it went on to win the Hugo, Locus & Nebula. It’s heralded as “His single finest creation” by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In 1982 Asimov himself expressed this to be his favorite science fiction novel. High praise all around.

A story in three very different parts, it is set in 2100, and deals with a possible unbalancing of the cosmos because of the Electron Pump – new technology that delivers clean, abundant energy. This unbalance might obliterate Earth.

The first part deals with the science behind it, and with the social problems inherent in doing science: it is a critique of ego before truth, and the petty competition between men. The second part deals with aliens – the first time ever Asimov wrote about aliens – in a parallel universe, aliens that are responsible for the Electron Pump. The third part is set on the moon, and is about scheming to resolve the problem.

It is a visibly constructed story: Ken MacLeod even speaks of “dialectics” in the pompous introduction to my 2012 edition, and indeed, as a construction it certainly has a charm, and Asimov’s craft is undeniable. Yet at the same time it sucks a bit of life out of it too. Wooden characters obviously don’t help that, especially not as most of the story is told through dialogue.

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BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Octavia E. Butler (1995)

Bloodchild and other stories

Lists are fun. Hence me browsing the fantastic Classics of Science Fiction, an aggregated ranking site by James W. Harris – who blogs about sci fi and getting older over at Auxiliary Memory. I saw that Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was ranked as the most cited (i.e. best) science fiction short story. For what it’s worth, it also won a Hugo, Locus, Nebula & SF Chronicle award. As I hadn’t read anything yet by Octavia Butler, I thought Bloodchild would be a good place to start. I found a cheap second hand copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories easily, and here we are.

There’s a couple of editions of the collection. The copy I got was published in 1995, and that has 5 stories, plus 2 essays. From 2005 onward however, it has been printed with two more stories – Amnesty and The Book Of Martha, both written in 2003. I did some googling and I found those easily, here and here – I’ll review them too. The fact that I chose to look online for the additional material is telling: this is not a bad collection – and that from an author who opens the preface to her collection with this line: “The truth is, I hate short story writing.”

It’s somewhat of a behind the scenes publication: each story is followed by an afterword of about 2 pages, in which Butler talks a bit about what she wanted to do with the story or how it came about. They are generally interesting, nothing spectacular, but nice enough. There’s also 2 short essays on writing, and I’ll say a few words about those later.

I’ll just do a quick write up of each story and a wee bit of concluding thoughts. This’ll be a fairly short review for a short book: 145 pages in my edition. Here we go:

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DUNE – Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune (Folio Society)I’ve read Dune for the first time 7 years ago. A year later, I finished Chapterhouse on the day Iain Banks died. I loved the series so much, I tried some of Herbert’s other books too – they all proved to be duds, except for Soul Catcher. I even read what Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson concocted as what was supposed to be the finale, Dune 7 – the so-so Hunters of Dune and the god-awful Sandworms of Dune.

Rereading is always a risk, and I hardly do so. Taste evolves. The thing is: when I first read Dune, I wasn’t that well versed in science fiction. I’d read about 5 Culture novels, Anathem by Stephenson, maybe the Foundation trilogy. I might have been easily impressed. 7 years later, I’ve read a whole lot more of speculative fiction: about 240 titles says my Worlds Without End database. I’ve tried to be broad in my approach, reading older stuff and newer stuff alike. Today, I’m a different judge.

This time, I read the fantastic Folio Society edition, which has an excellent essay by Michael Dirda, and an interesting afterword by Brian Herbert. It’s good to see confirmed that Dune indeed was revolutionary. A book much longer than most other novels of its day – other titles were only a quarter to a third of Dune‘s 215,000 words. That meant an expensive book – “in excess of 5 dollars”, the highest retail price yet for any science fiction novel. And it was not only revolutionary because of its size – it was also an untold commercial succes. While initial sales were slow, it got the Nebula and Hugo awards, and by 1970 the book began to sell well. The sequels became bestsellers too, with sales running into the millions. By 1979 it sold over 10 million copies, and when David Lynch’s 1985 movie adaptation was released, Dune reached no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, 20 years after its first publication. Frank Herbert was “the first [science fiction] writer to obtain such high level of readership.”

So, what has this reread told me? What to write about the most lauded science fiction book of all time? Well, easy! That it is within rights and reason to call this one of the greatest books ever – if it falls into your taste range.

My guess is that it will still be read a century from now.  Dune has a timeless quality: ditching computers was a genius move by Herbert. In Destination: Void – which was first published in Galaxy Magazine around the same time as Dune – Herbert took the opposite route, embedding a great thriller in pages and pages of computer babble. Even though that babble was realistic at the time, it utterly fails today. Not so with Dune.

There’s hardly anything that can age in this book. Some have argued that the feudal structure of the galactic empire is unrealistic for a far future human world – and as such dated in the 21st century – but that is an utterly naive, Western centrist thought. If the last decade has taught us something, is that we should not take democracy for granted – especially not as global turmoil has only just began at the dawn of disruptive climate change. Who’s so arrogant to claim they have a clear grasp on the arrow of time? Hegel fans? Hari Seldon?

Before I’ll try to shed some more light on why this book remains such a joy to read in 2019 – brace yourselves for a 5444 words analysis of both form and content – let me tackle a bit of critique first. I’d rather have that out of the way, and let the rest of my text be an unapologetic celebration of Herbert’s creation.

(There will be some spoilers throughout, including minor ones about the next 3 books in the series.)


Not everybody likes Dune. Blogger Megan AM, in her 2014 review on From Couch To Moon, worded her problem with the protagonist, Paul, as follows:

If he’s cold, the reader doesn’t care what happens to him. If he’s infallible, he’ll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you’ve got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it’s D.O.A.

Gender pops up a bit further in her review:

Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul’s behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts… even his followers. Even Paul’s mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. “You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura,” she charged. “You never cease indoctrinating” (p. 620). How incredibly appealing to a young male…

I think both issues are partly the result of a biased reading – admittedly, something we are all prone too. Yes, older fiction is up to “contemporary dissection” – but the text itself has its rights.

I fully agree that the hero in Dune appeals to readers because of his control, among other things. But there are two problems in Megan’s gendered reading. First are some facts residing in Dune itself. Also Jessica – and to a lesser extent Chani – are in control. They too are heroes of the book. There are other characters who are just as calculating and manipulative, and some of them – all of the Bene Gesserit – are female. Focusing on Paul’s male biological sex seems strange in that light. Moreover, when Paul becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, Herbert explicitly frames this as a fusion of 2 genders, Paul becoming both taker and giver, male and female. Sure, one could debate the problematic dichotomy of that – but either way these facts show the analysis of Megan is a bit superficial.

A second problem is Megan’s own portrayal of “young males” and “many males in the SF community”. I’m sure there are quite a lot of women too who want control over their emotions, thoughts, actions. I think Megan too easily frames Paul’s behavior as a problematic masculine ideal.

To end this first part of my review, let me get back to Megan’s first quote. Paul is “cold” and “infallible”, a “predetermined” “demigod”, and all that could make readers not care for him. Megan is fully right about the predetermined part, but I think exactly that is one of the crucial strengths of the book – I’ll get to that in more detail after the jump.

Yet cold and infallible? One could maybe argue about cold –  it is partly in the eye of the beholder – but again, the text itself has its rights. Paul gives moisture to the dead! He does mourn his father – he only has to postpone it, due to the situation he is in. That doesn’t make him cold. It makes him tragic. He has intense friendships with Stilgar and Gurney Halleck. Near the end, he is upset by his mother’s cold shoulder. He struggles emotionally with his own role. And maybe most importantly: he loves & respects Chani deeply, in an explicitly tender way – the ending pages are proof of that. I agree Herbert doesn’t devote lots of page time to these aspects, but they are there. Clearly.

A reader is well within his or her right to think Herbert should have devoted more time to the characters’ emotions – and granted, characterization is not the book’s main focus – but the claim that Paul is cold is not how I experienced it.

One cannot argue about infallible though. Paul fails. He fails spectacularly. Yes, he dethrones the emperor, he marries the princess. But all that is just superficial pomp, not at the heart of this story. It strikes me as odd that Megan AM didn’t mention this. Paul’s failure is even double.

One: his own son is killed. It is one of the pivotal moments of the book – even without taking into account the strong emphasis Herbert puts on the importance of genes and bloodlines. More so, the death of his firstborn is one of the pivotal moments of the entire series, with possibly galactic repercussions. “He felt emptied, a shell without emotions. Everything he touched brought death and grief. And it was like a disease that could spread across the universe.” Two: Paul’s main drive in the book is to prevent the jihad, yet he fails to do so. That only becomes fully clear in the sequels, but still, it is spelled out explicitly multiple times.

Herbert didn’t write Paul as a true masculine infallible hero. He is noble-born, strong and superbly trained, yes, but he is more than that, and morally ambiguous. It is when his firstborn son dies that – maybe? – Paul embraces jihad as cosmic revenge for all the suffering he had to endure. “Something seemed to chuckle and rub its hands within him. And Paul thought: How little the universe knows about the nature of real cruelty!” Herbert doesn’t spoon-feed it to the reader. It is unclear how to interpret that italic sentence, but either way, it is one of many that makes Paul human – somebody this reader could connect to.


Before I’ll dive into a more substantial analysis, the following needs emphasis: reading Dune was even better the second time around. One part of that is that I was familiar with its world – the first half can be tough on new readers that don’t know what’s going on. Another part is that I have become more experienced as reader, seeing both the book’s literary mechanics and its philosophical implications much clearer – and because of that I appreciate it all the more.

Books that can be reread don’t hinge on novelty & surprise alone. There is no better testament to what Herbert achieved artistically. Please join me in celebrating the how & what of Dune some more!

I’ll first highlight a few technical issues: Herbert’s prose, his plotting power – including a detailed case study of the first knife fight, between Paul and Jamis. After that, I’ll zoom in on Dune‘s tragic philosophical content.

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GATEWAY – Frederik Pohl (1977)

Gateway

Gateway is a famous book. It’s one of the few novels that won 4 major prizes: the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Campbell award, and it’s on numerous essential SF lists.

While it’s perfectly self-contained, Pohl wrote 5 sequels: Beyond The Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), The Annals Of The Heechee (1987), The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Together with the 1972 novella The Merchants Of Venus, and The Gateway Trip – a short story collection that appeared in 1990 – these books form the Heechee saga.

The Heechee are a mysterious alien race that explored our Galaxy hundreds of millennia ago. Near Earth, they left structures on Venus, and – crucial for this novel – a space station in an asteroid, including functional spaceships. Humans can operate these, but don’t really understand the technology.

The basic premise of Gateway is brilliant: humans embark on voyages in these ships, but it’s a bit of a lottery. Most of the time, crews do not know where they’ll end up – there might be proverbial gold at the destination, but more likely it’ll be just a barren planet, or worse, mortal danger. The link with prospecting in the Wild West is easily made.

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AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American GodsI’ve only seen the trailer of Starz’s adaptation of American Gods, but that firmly set the face of Ian McShane as default for one of its main characters – Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin. Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen in HBO’s brilliant – and sadly uncompleted – Deadwood. The mannerisms of that cunning brothel owner suit Mr. Wednesday well, and as books aren’t read in a vacuum, my Mr. Wednesday turned out to be an incarnation of Mr. Swearengen. Kind of fitting for a book about the dark side of Americana, and the casting people of Starz must have thought so too.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most famous and acclaimed book: it won the Hugo, the Locus Fantasy, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker award. Worlds Without End has it as number 6 of their most read books, and it’s on spot 2 of their list of SFF’s most nominated books.

I guess most people reading this know what the book is about: “gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them spirits and gods. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.” The book’s protagonist, Shadow, finds himself at the center of a conflict between the old and the new when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, just after being released from prison.

I’ve read the 10th anniversary edition, which added 12.000 words that were cut for the first version, and the praise on its back cover leaves no room for doubt: this is speculative fiction of the literary kind. I’ve written about speculative fiction’s obsession with Literature before, so I will not repeat that here, but rest assured, American Gods is no pulp indeed. Not being pulp does not make it a masterpiece either, so let’s start this review already. Continue reading

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

THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.


Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

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THE FOREVER WAR – Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever WarThe Forever War is generally thought of as a SF-classic with everlasting appeal. Not only a SF-classic, but even a straight out American classic of literature. 3 different quotes on my edition rave in one way or the other about the book being up there with the big boys of non-genre, non-pulp literature: “the most important war novel written since Vietnam”.

I disagree. It’s not that the book hasn’t aged well: it hasn’t, but that’s not its problem. I never felt it being a very good book, and I think it never has been. It is not without merit, there’s excellent parts, but overall there’s not enough meat on the bone. It works as an allegory, but not as a story. Moreover, its ethics are pathetically superficial: a pretty spectacular fail, especially for an indicting war novel. More on that later, also in the comments.

I guess most SF-fans know that Joe Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, and that The Forever War actually is about the Vietnam war – it is even considered a critique of that war; in the introduction Haldeman recollects having a hard time getting it published because of that. It’s a personal book: the protagonist’s name, William Mandela, clearly is an anagram of Haldeman.

So, what’s the good here?

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2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)

2312The heart of this novel is a love affair with the universe itself… People that haven’t lost their sense of wonder and amazement at the splendor of existence, and who also like to learn and discover as much as they can about the vast reality we live in, will find a lot to rejoice in this breathtaking and brave book.

That plenitude is one of 2312‘s strengths. It covers a very broad spectrum, and people with a keen interest in non-fiction will see that Robinson has incorporated lots and lots of stuff from various scholarly domains. It was a boisterous, joyous feast of recognition that broadened my horizon at the same time.

As every more or less enlightened person nowadays thinks in the wake of Darwin, Robinson is a writer of evolution as well, and his bold speculations of how things might evolve in the near future is depressing and hopeful at the same time. As such, 2312 is a very realistic, hard SF book, and utterly mind-blowing at that.

Robinson has found a really interesting narrative voice, funny at times, revealing things at the right time, switching between 3 main different modes, without it ever being confusing. The way the novel is structured elegantly solves the info dump problem. While it drags a wee bit around the halfway mark, and it suffers a bit from too much description at times, generally, it’s a fast paced book.

2312 sometimes reads as a giant, original 540-page summary of other contemporary SF, as it touches upon so many themes. It feels a bit like the true Hard SF variant of Bank’s utopianism, as if we were witnessing the very early stages of the birth of a human Culture, confined to this solar system. And what Reynolds did for the realistic, lonely portrayal of interstellar space travel, Robinson does for the portrayal of life on the other planets, moons and asteroids of this solar system. I’m interested if Stephenson will equal this in his upcoming Seveneves – a book with a similar setting, albeit part of it in a much further future.

This was the first book of Robinson I’ve read. I guess most of his other stuff will end up on my TBR-pile, so there you have it.

One more thing… Over the course of a small week, this book made me look up at the sun, the clouds and the sky multiple times, and made me deeply appreciate our biosphere, not really for the first time, but this time with a new sense of wonder and awe – we are actually walking and living on the surface of a planet, without space suits at all.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of Hard SF.

originally written on the 17th of May, 2015


My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984)Icehenge (1984) – The Memory Of Whiteness (1985) – The Gold Coast (1988) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – Pacific Edge (1990) – Shaman (2013) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry For The Future (2020).


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

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

BABEL-17 – Samuel R. Delany (1966)

Babel-17Babel-17 failed to connect with me. I felt this classic is way past it sell by date. Since it’s mainly a book about ideas, the ideas must remain fresh and crisp for a 21st century reader to enjoy it. Sadly, that’s not the case.

The ideas most important for the book are about the nature of language. Even when reading it in 1966, I doubt that someone with a fairly basic knowledge of language philosophy could have enjoyed this. It’s not so much the matter that the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been discredited to some degree, but it’s simply the general sloppiness of the ideas and little tidbits about language Babel-17 tries to force feed you. I’ll briefly illustrate that with 2 examples…

Delany writes about a language that can describe a very big and complicated power plant fully, to pretty small details – colors of the wall, mechanics, lay-out, etc. – in just 9 (nine!) short words, even though the culture that speaks this language has never even encountered a power plant. As a character with a keen mind says in the novel: “That’s impossible.” The prodigy main character, a telepathic uberpolyglot poet, dismisses this with a very short explanation, and simply states it is just a matter of the right vocabulary. Yeah, right. No, it is downright impossible, and any serious language philosopher would have told you in the sixties too. There’s nothing speculative about claiming something else, it’s just bad reasoning. Delany also devotes pages and pages about a language without the word “I”. Sure, thinking in (only) this language would probably influence one’s self-consciousness. Yet, Delany then goes on to claim such people wouldn’t have any will or incentive to escape a dangerous situation or be free, would know no fear, etc. Again, any behavioral scientist (or about anybody else with a right mind) in the 60ies would claim otherwise. I’m guessing ants or lizards have no word for “I”, but still try to scuttle off when in danger. Yet a character thinking in this language does try to escape a prison and – I’ll just stop here.

All this might not have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that just about the entire narrative of the book depends on the content of the above examples and others like it. The net result is a plot that is painful to read.

A lot of the other, science fictionesque ideas (those not about language) are ill-conceived too. Who would possibly want to have real, sharp metal spurs implanted on their wrists? Think about it for a second: do the benefits outweigh the practicalities of such a gimmick when sleeping or generally not being in battle? The book is full of stuff like that. Cringeworthy.

The characters are cardboard.

On top of all that, Delany tries to be literary. So, it’s not only a SF book about language (meta!), it’s an artistic book too! But again, it’s just feeble attempts. There’s a full chapter – that is just 1 page long – with only broken syntax, there’s bad poetry at the start of every chapter, there’s a chapter with a minor lay-out experiment, etc. Other writers did stuff like that earlier, with more impact, and above all: out of internal necessity, because their novels or poetry needed it to advance the story.

This book probably has merit for those that read with a historical eye, but contemporary folk only looking for a good, entertaining read better stay away: even the action and the adventure story isn’t captivating.

And oh, there’s the giant infodump in the last 10 pages that explains just about everything that happened in the previous 180. So maybe just read that, and save yourself some time.

Concluding, as jwharris wrote on the forum of Worlds Without End: “these older books for the most part are poorly written compared to modern science fiction. (…) Often these old novels have some neat ideas, but the storytelling is crap.” In Babel-17, even the ideas aren’t that neat, often feel forced, not fully fleshed out or simply wrong.

Final verdict: embellishments + half-baked substance = shiny turd.

originally written on the 8th of May, 2015

ANNIHILATION – Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

AnnihilationThis first book of the Southern Reach trilogy doesn’t really deliver. The premise is interesting, but it’s hardly used to develop something other than mood, the only thing we get is verdant breadcrumbs. There isn’t much of story, hardly any character development, and surely no characters I cared for, because the characterization is (very) shallow most of the time. Yes, there is some back story to the protagonist, but that’s just clichéd: she was an uncool kid that liked science. (Now there’s something we can all relate too!)

It’s a book filled with seemingly neat ideas for the sake of neat ideas. Take the fact that the expedition is filled with only women. Surely brilliant from a marketing perspective, but nothing of that fact is explored, the characters could have been men just the same.

Some have written VanderMeer writes lyrical prose. I can see where they are coming from, and the prose is not bad, but adjectives like bloated, ponderous or vague spring to mind just as easily as ‘lyrical’.

Annihilation is only 190 pages in a pocketish edition. I have the feeling volume 2 and 3 won’t add a lot, and some surfing on the web indeed confirmed they don’t really answer any questions at all.

So, it’s mainly an atmosphere novel, brooding for the sake of brooding, mysterious for the sake of mystery. Lots of nature descriptions, strange sticky slime, hallucinations & hypnosis, bioluminescent fungi, a lot of insinuations and internal monologue, gothic writing in moss, maybe a military experiment caused an ecological disaster, feral boars, etc. Dreamlike stuff, it has been done before. On a surface level, this book is about the weird and the odd. Sadly, there aren’t any other levels.

Some have argued the trilogy is about that what can’t be known and the inherently mysterious nature of reality, and there sure are explicit hints of that near the end of this first book, yet I didn’t have the feeling I was lyrically elevated to new epistemological spheres, nor did I gain intuitive insights on meta-truths about knowledge. Conclusion: style over substance.

originally written on the 12th of April, 2015


Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

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

NEUROMANCER – William Gibson (1984)

NeuromancerThis book was hard work. I’m not sure if that hard work really paid off. I liked some parts, and there were some amazing sentences here and there, but overall this was too much stream of consciousness writing, and I didn’t really connect with Gibson’s consciousness. It doesn’t have the density of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow, but still, Neuromancer is a very dense book by any other standard, and it left me tired. It does get a bit easier, with a lot more exposition, towards the final 3rd of the book.

Density and unclear writing aren’t marks of valor per se. It might seem highbrow or sophisticated to read a dense book, and that’s undoubtedly part of the novel’s appeal – it adds to the reader’s own sense of prestige – , but one could easily argue that because of the style the characters are not clearly drawn and lifeless. The writing adds to the sense of chaos, but at the same time hides possible plot holes and almost violently forces the reader to suspend disbelief. I wonder whether the story itself would suffice to create the same effect.

So, one could debate Gibson being either a sloppy writer or otherwise a mad genius that only the willing and able can truly appreciate. The more I think about, the more I realize that I should maybe reread Neuromancer, with different expectations and a different mindset, and a more persistent effort to try to understand more of it. As it is, after my first reading, I didn’t feel that there was enough there content wise to justify Gibson’s formal approach. At times, I just wanted to quit, and I read on mainly because it has such a legacy.

As for the cyberpunk part of Neuromancer‘s influence, I really liked Stephenson’s take on the matter in Snow Crash a lot better. It had the same vibe, but because of clearer writing, the outrageousness of the world it painted impacted a lot more. Snow Crash read like a much more exciting book, with a more exciting story about more exciting characters in a more exciting world.

Some reviewers pointed out that Neuromancer may have well been written under the influence of drugs. Yes, it’s outlandish and otherworldly, but it felt disjointed and random too. While I can imagine other readers to enjoy it, and understand its historical relevance, for now I don’t feel it lives up to the hype. A blurry, messy book.

originally written on the 25th of February, 2015