Tag Archives: Non-SFF fiction

ZERO K – Don DeLillo (2016)

Zero KWhen I learned that the author of White Noise – a staple of postmodernism – had written a science fiction novel, I was delighted. I thought White Noise was funny and profoundly human, a rare five star book really, so what would he do with a book on cryogenics? Most reviewers agreed that this new book was DeLillo’s best since Underworld – his big American masterwork – so that only made me more eager.

Calling Zero K science fiction is a bit of a stretch: companies that offer to freeze your body in the hope of future medical advances do exist, and have for quite some time. There is an amount of scientific speculation in Zero K, but do not expect the technology or the science to be the focus. Not that this matters much – SF readers with an open mind will find much to savor here.

The book’s structure is set up to lure the regular SF reader in: the bulk of the world building – so to say – happens in the first half of the book. We are introduced to The Convergence, a remote and secret compound where wealthy people choose to be frozen. The subdued sense of wonder is real, and the scenes, like the compound’s structures itself, are strange, detached, and at times even reminded me of Kafka. When it slowly turns out this book is not really a science fiction novel, but something entirely of its own, I couldn’t care less about its classification, and was entirely hooked.

A few chapters in I was more curious about DeLillo himself, and I read up on him before I continued. It entirely changed the way I framed the book: DeLillo was 79 years old when Zero K was published. Continue reading

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SOUL CATCHER – Frank Herbert (1972)

Soul Catcher

A few years ago, I decided to read the most important other Herbert novels before starting a reread of the Dune series. A review of Children Of Dune on the always thoughtful Gaping Blackbird, made me eager to start that reread. That review focuses on the Nietzschean inspiration of CoD, and it led to an interesting discussion in the comments. So, I was eager to dive into Dune again, but as I still had Soul Catcher on my TBR, I started that.

Yesterday, after finishing Soul Catcher, I decided to kick the reread of Dune even a bit further back, and I ordered Destination: Void, on account of Joachim Boaz, who praised Herbert’s handling of its characters’ psyches in the comments of my Whipping Star review – as Soul Catcher is first and foremost a character driven novel, and one that even succeeds at that. I have to admit I had given up on Herbert as non-Dune writer, as Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment and The Santaroga Barrier all disappointed. So I’m all the more pleased to report Soul Catcher was a good read, and one that invigorated me to give Destination: Void an honest chance.

Genre classifications being what they are, potential readers should be aware that Soul Catcher is not speculative fiction. Rob Weber reported in his review on Val’s Random Comments that the publisher, Putnam, even put the following on the back flap: “This is Frank Herbert’s first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune…”. Novels were not the same as science fiction books in 1972. Interestingly enough, there is no trace of that attitude on my 1979 edition, on the contrary. As you can see on the 1979 cover I included here, both the illustration and the text try to tap on to a speculative vibe: this is a “terrifying novel of the Spirit World” – click on it if it shows up too small. Apparently Soul Catcher didn’t really catch on as regular literary fiction, and 7 years later, marketing decided to firmly latch it to Herbert’s other output – it’s pretty clear if you compare the vibe of the covers of the first two editions to the later one. The 2012 cover reverts the approach again. As always, ISFDB has a good overview of all the different cover art.

As Rob also wrote, the fact that this isn’t a SF book should not deter Herbert fans: “the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert’s other works.”

Soul Catcher deals with a Native American kidnapping a 13-year old boy with the intent to kill him, as symbolical revenge for the rape of his own sister by a gang of white men, and her ensuing suicide – and by extension all the other crimes against the indigenous humans of the continent. As such it is a book that simply would not be published in these times of hired sensitivity readers. It would not get published just because of sensitivity issues: on top of that a white man writing a story like this without a doubt would get accused of cultural appropriation too. The fact that Herbert researched the subject extensively and clearly does not sympathize with white, Western genocidary imperialism would not excuse him. I’m sure today no publisher would dare to take a chance in our era of hair trigger culture wars.

After the jump you’ll find a rather lengthy discussion of a few different things: Soul Catcher as a psychological novel that also teaches us about today’s ‘terrorist’ violence; Soul Catcher as a critique on Western society and its interesting, realistic use of the ‘noble savage’ trope; a discussion on the use of ‘soul’ vs. ‘spirit’; a nugget for Dune fans; and my thoughts on the powerful ending and that ending’s relation to a movie adaptition that might or might not be made.

Certain sections are quote heavy, but obviously you can skim those if the particular topic doesn’t interest you that much.

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YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME NOW – M. John Harrison (2017)

You Should Come With Me NowYou Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.

Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.

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BRING UP THE BODIES – Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up The BodiesReviewing a sequel is a bit harder: you can’t spoil too much for readers that haven’t read the previous book, and there’s the danger of just repeating oneself if the books are similar.

None of that in this take on Bring Up The Bodies – the much-lauded sequel to the equally lauded Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the troubles surrounding Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, and the downfall of Thomas More.

Spoiling stuff is not a problem, as most people are familiar with the most famous Tudor story. Book 1 ended with the execution of Thomas More, and this book will end with the execution of Anne Boleyn: it’s out in the open on the back cover too.

And I won’t be repeating myself when I discuss the core ideas of this book, as it’s way different in scope and focus.

But before that, let’s just get all this out of the way: Bring Out The Bodies was a thoroughly enjoyable read; it’s a stylistic triumph again; again top-notch pacing; the story is stranger than fiction, even more so in this book; and again, this is better than palace fantasy. And yes, also for this sequel Mantel had to make choices: historians will keep on debating about Cromwell’s role, so she does not pretend to write a biography, but historical fiction indeed.  Continue reading

WHITE NOISE – Don DeLillo (1985)

white-noiseWhite Noise is a famous novel. It’s one of the prime examples of postmodern literature, and it’s the book that made Don DeLillo big. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985 – Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home was nominated as well. It’s been analyzed to death: there are editions with the novel’s text & criticism side to side.

So yes, indeed, all of the stuff you have read about White Noise is true. There’s irony. Critique on television. Critique of consumer society. A lot of enumerations of consumer products. Enumerations of other stuff. Tiny snippets of commercials, documentaries, radio news, manuals. A protagonist that has been married 5 times to 4 women and who’s a professor in Hitler studies. Musings about death. Stuff about popular culture. General stuff. Specific stuff. Bleak stuff. American stuff. Meta stuff. 310 pages and about 10 meta lines for the literature post grad to feast upon. The novel is self-aware indeed.

I thought that when tradition becomes too flexible, irony enters the voice. Nasality, sarcasm, self-caricature and so on.

A description like that might be off putting to some. But it also misses the point, as postmodern meta-ness is not even the novel’s strength: it’s all fairly transparent anyway. What’s missing in most of the scholarly analysis I’ve read, is the humanity that underlies it all. White Noise, for me, was first and foremost a book with remarkable and deep emotional understanding of family life and fatherhood. Continue reading

WOLF HALL – Hilary Mantel (2009)

Wolf HallWolf Hall pops up in several lists of best historical fiction ever, but I got turned to it by Kim Stanley Robinson, who mentioned it in an interview as superb – together with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. It is the first book in a planned trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, and famous for having had a hand in the creation of the Anglican church, as well as in the downfall of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall sketches the events of Tudor England up until 1535. Sequel Bring Up The Bodies was published in 2012 and won a Man Booker Prize too. The Mirror And The Light will cover the last 4 years of Cromwell’s life and has yet to be published.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s 650 pages. It should appeal to lots of fantasy fans too, as the character of Thomas Cromwell makes for quite a hero. He is the first low born man to rise to such high stature in the English realm – an exceptional figure. What makes him remarkable is his intelligence: he is one of the first English people to notice the importance of the emerging financial, monetary world; speaks numerous languages; has a keen sense of the ways of humans that help him in his power brokering. Plus, he is a bit of a vagabond: fleeing an abusive father, he was a mercenary for the French, travelled through the Low Countries, and ended up serving a Florentine banker. Stranger than fiction indeed, a character that could have been plucked out of whatever court fantasy. Yet it is the other way around, as most subpar fantasy is just medieval history with dragons.

Obviously historians are still debating this and that, and writing about history willy-nilly leads to making choices. Hillary Mantel paints a Thomas Cromwell in a more or less sympathetic light – contrary to commonly held beliefs. He mourns his wife and daughters that die too early, he is a loyal servant to his first English patron, cardinal Wolsey, he struggles with memories of his father, feels for Thomas More’s family, etc. Reviewers writing that they didn’t get to see Cromwell’s emotions haven’t read carefully enough. The emotions are there, and they are one of the many strengths of the book.

Hilary Mantel knows she writes fiction, makes choices. She admits so on the final but one page, in a passage that is visibly meta, yet fits the story and the thoughts of her Cromwell well – all of the last 50 or so pages are truly exquisite, moving, final.

He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.

Still, even after 650 pages, Cromwell stays an elusive character. He is a mystery to himself, and multiple personas in one body – as we all are, I guess. It is to Mantel’s credit she has managed to paint somebody complex, without resorting to vagueness, without the painted figure out of focus, and at the same time without being too obvious about Cromwell’s complexity. The two following passages are among the very few that explicitly, overtly talk about his inner life.

He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomas Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?

&

I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?

So yes, Wolf Hall is an ‘English’ book, subtle – as the cliché goes. Plus, occasionally brutal and upfront – times were harsh, and Mantel doesn’t romanticize. Subtle, brutal, and funny too! Although it’s not a court drama, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be a good fantasy counterpart.

There’s so much to say about this book. In the remainder, I’ll focus on the conflict between two world views underlying the novel, and make some remarks on Mantel’s style.

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PALE FIRE – Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Pale FireTo call this book fantasy is a bit of stretch, a bit of a very big stretch even. Nabokov’s seminal book takes the form of a fictional publication of a 999-line poem by fictional author John Shade who died just before completing the poem, with a preface, very elaborate notes (the bulk of the book) and even an index by Charles Kinbote, a fictional scholar.

As such, it won’t appeal to regular fantasy readers. Kinbote is crazy, and his notes often read like the ramblings of a madman. In it, he talks about “the fantastical tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king”, as a synopsis online says. But, the word “fantastical” should not be taken as an indication this tale being of the “fantasy” kind, but simply as “made up by a nutter”. Zembla is more or less a metaphor for Nabokov’s native Russia, and the fleeing king echoes the Tsar’s persecution by revolutionary forces.

I had a hard time getting through the book. It is hard work, since ramblings of a madman aren’t a particularly easy read. The book is stuffed with cross-references, hidden easter eggs, interplay between the poem, the notes and the index, etc. As such, it has pleased literature scholars across the globe, and has been analysed to death. I guess it should indeed be read twice or thrice to fully appreciate Nabokov’s construction. Nabokov did a fine job there, since scholars can’t seem to agree whether Nabokov intended the scholar to be real or invented by the poet himself, or the other way around, or that there is even a third person who made up both Shade and Kinbote. It might even be possible that Kinbote is actually the exiled Zemblan king himself. Add to all that the fact that the book’s obviously meta (it’s about notes to a poem!), and you get a regular feast for the literature professional…

I didn’t really enjoy it, since Pale Fire‘s mystery didn’t really interest me. The story felt empty, and mainly a gimmick. Still, Nabokov’s mastery of language is an amazing, stunning thing to behold. There are truly magnificent sentences on nearly every page. If you just approach the preface and the notes as a long prose poem one just has to experience, immersed in a beautifully written stream of consciousness, without wanting to comprehend or unravel every little allusion or hidden trinket, the book is a masterpiece.

originally written on the 20th of September, 2015