Tag Archives: Non-SFF fiction

THE WALL – Marlen Haushofer (1963)

The Wall HaushoferI don’t know why, but it seems I am drawn to books about singular women that have a heightened contact with nature. I’ve just read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, about a female wizard that grew up in isolation, surrounded by fantastic beasts. I also have fond memories of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by the Polish Olga Tokarczuk – who won the 2018 Nobel Prize. And don’t get me started on The Door by the Hungarian Magda Szabó: while my review of that 1987 book was just short, it is one of my favorite reads ever – if you haven’t read it, I urge you to give it a try.

25 years older than The Door and 46 years younger than Drive Your Plow…, The Wall also has a central European origin: Austria. Marlen Haushofer wrote it in German, and Die Wand was translated in English in 1990 by Shaun Whiteside.

The story has a clear speculative premise: the female protagonist gets trapped in the Austrian mountains, as a suddenly appearing giant transparent wall closes her in, encircling the hunting lodge and the surrounding landscape – mountains, woods, an alm, a valley. It seems all animal life outside the wall is dead, and the woman is left to her own devices to survive – together with a cow, a dog, and a cat.

Those expecting a full-fledged sci-fi romp will be disappointed if they can’t appreciate anything outside genre. The origin of the wall is never explained, nor explored. It is something of a paradox that the story’s only speculative element is at the same time very dominant, yet hardly present. Haushofer’s choices make for a novel that hasn’t dated at all.

The Wall takes the form of a first-person account of the woman, who writes about her ordeals to keep madness at bay. The book has no chapters, and its 224 pages are one long sequence describing chronologically what happened, with the occasional foreshadowing rumination. The story’s focus is rather monomaniacal, and what happens is more or less predictable: she turns to a farming life, one that might offer her better chances of self-realization than her old life.

In a way, it is a miracle Haushofer managed to write an utterly compelling novel, rather than a drab, boring tale about someone planting potatoes again and again. The Wall sucked me in after 30 pages, and if I could, I would have finished it in one sitting. Continue reading

VERGEET NIET WAT DE ZEVENSLAPER ZEI – J.M.H. Berckmans (1989)

A post in Dutch, about Antwerp author Jean-Marie Berckmans, who died in 2008 – after a lifelong struggle with manic-depression, anxiety and addiction. I’m slowly working my way through his oeuvre.

This review is about his 2nd debut – he disappeared for years from the literary stage after his 1977 debut. The title is a Dutch translation of “Remember what the dormouse said”.

Next post will be in English again – on the excellent Perihelion Summer, a 2019 title by Hard SF giant Greg Egan.


Voor een introductie in J.M.H. Berckmans: zie de linkjes onderaan.

De zevenslaper is een relmuis: relmuizen slapen 7 maanden per jaar. Het is meer bepaald de relmuis uit het nummer White Rabbit van Jefferson Airplane – waarin Grace Slick er ons op het einde aan herinnert dat die muis “feed your head” zei. Jean-Marie Berckmans was verslingerd aan muziek, maar in zijn 2e debuut uit 1989 is het veelal toch wat minder swingend & free dan in zijn latere werk.

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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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DE VOORSTAD GROEIT – Louis Paul Boon (1943)

De Voorstad Groeit (LP Boon) 9e druk 2000This time a post in Dutch, about the debut of Louis Paul Boon, an Flemish author, born in 1912. In 1979 he was invited to the Swedish embassy sometime before the Nobel Prize was awarded, likely to be informed of him winning it, but since he died the day before, he never got it, as Nobel Prizes are only awarded to the living. De Voorstad Groeit translates as The Suburb Grows, and deals with themes of urbanization, poverty and the lives of factory workers somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.

An early French translation by Marcel Defosse was never published, and no other translations exist as far as I know. A shame, because this book remains as powerful and relevant as when it was written. It has been compared to the work of Jon Dos Passos.

Next post will be in English again – probably a review of Bewilderment by Richard Powers.



Hoewel Boon een van onze grootste schrijvers is, en misschien zelfs de grootste romancier, is het grootste deel van zijn omvangrijke oeuvre enkel tweedehands verkrijgbaar. Van dit debuut werden in de loop der jaren ongeveer 82 000 exemplaren verkocht, omnibusuitgaven incluis. Ik las de 9e druk, de zogenaamde wetenschappelijke ‘Werkuitgave’, in 2000 door Querido uitgegeven op vijftienhonderd exemplaren, met achteraan een 40-tal erg interessante bladzijden publicatiehistoriek, receptiegeschiedenis en tekstverantwoording.

Die publicatiehistoriek is opmerkelijk omdat dit boek tijdens de oorlog is uitgegeven, nadat het in 1942 de Leo L. Krynprijs had gekregen – een literaire prijs met o.a. Willem Elsschot in de jury. Dat toont eens te meer ons – of toch op z’n minst mijn – gebrekkig historisch besef aan. Ik had niet gedacht dat tijdens de Duitse bezetting literaire prijzen werden uitgeschreven, of dat Angèle Manteau 3000 expemplaren van dit boek had kunnen of zelfs willen uitgeven – winkelprijs 35 Belgische Frank. Het is zelfs besproken door heel wat (Duitsgezinde) recensenten.

Die Duitsgezinde heren zijn het haast allemaal roerend eens dat De Voorstad Groeit vormelijk en qua taal een ijzersterk boek is en Boon een groot nieuw talent. Enkel over de inhoud twijfelt men: het boek zou te ‘miserabilistisch’ zijn, en daarom als het ware voorbijgestreefd. De Nieuwe Orde kwam er immers aan, en na de oorlog zouden alle problemen van de arbeiders en het volk toch als sneeuw voor de zon verdwijnen?

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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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BRIEF AAN EEN MEISJE IN HOBOKEN — GESCHIEDENIS VAN DE REVOLUTIE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1977/1994)

This post is in Dutch, as I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans. The novel I review is a 1994 reissue of his 1977 debut, albeit with a different title.


Brief aan een meisje in HobokenBrief aan een meisje in Hoboken / Geschiedenis van de Revolutie neemt een wat aparte plaats in in het oeuvre van Jean-Marie Berckmans.

Zijn debuut verscheen ruim elf jaar voor Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei uit 1989, de eerste van wat in totaal 14 verhalenbundels zouden worden. Geschiedenis van de Revolutie is zijn enige werk dat geboekstaafd staat als een “roman”.

Het manuscript was al af in september 1974, iets voor Jean-Maries 21ste verjaardag. Hij begon het boek na zijn eerste kandidatuur Germaanse, en het kan daarom als een jeugdwerk worden beschouwd.

Toch zou het fout zijn deze korte roman van 160 pagina’s af te doen als een minder werk van een nog wat onvolwassen JMH. 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

THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN – M. John Harrison (2020)

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again“Hard to know if it’s a neurosis or a survival characteristic.”

This is a tough nut to crack. You could say that I’m a Harrison fan – his latest short fiction collection You Should Come With Me Know was one of my favorite reads in 2017, and I liked the strange 2002 science fiction novel Light a lot. But aside the 15 pages of Doe Lea, I haven’t read anything else by him. The seminal Viriconium is on my TBR, as are the final 2 installments in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy began with Light. I also found a second hand copy of his 1971 debut The Committed Men – a new wave post-apocalyptic story set in the UK, and a copy of The Centauri Device, an “anti-space opera” that influenced Banks & Reynolds. I plan to read all of those, but at my current rate it will take me years. Anyhow, if you are a bit familiar with the titles I listed, you’ll notice Harrison has an impressive range – I know few speculative writers who have such a varied output.

It is 2020 today, and it is clear M. John Harrison has covered a lot of millage as a writer in the 50 years he’s been writing publicly. His first novel since 2012, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is published by Gollancz – which has published only science fiction and fantasy since its ownership changed in 1998. It’s maybe fitting Harrison’s new novel reconnects it to the company’s origin as a publisher of “high quality literature” too. The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is not science fiction. Speculative fiction could do, maybe, but I’d hesitate to use that moniker. Aside from a label that determines a potential reader’s expectations, the question of genre might not be important, were it not that Harrison seems to try and subvert every genre he writes in. A “failed allegory” perhaps?

This novel is a portrait of a lonely man and a lonely woman, both in some kind of anxious midlife crisis, both experiencing “a triumph of disconnection”, laterally entangled in some vague, batshit conspiracy, firmly embedded in London & Shropshire landscapes, sprinkled with a few weird, wrenched elements – but rest assured: those elements never dominate the story.

Harrison – undoubtly “a high-functioning romantic” like Victoria – mentions quite a few painters, paintings or prints. Aside from capriccios by Felix Kelly, and prints from John Atkinson Grimshaw and Eric Ravilious, he explicitly names The Red Rook (1948) by Gertrude Abercrombie, Sea Idyll (1887) by Arnold Böcklin, The Colossi of Memmon, Thebes, One (1872) by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner and Solar Eclipse in Venice, 6 July 1842 by Ippolito Cafi. Continue reading

RADIANCE – Carter Scholz (2002)

Radiance Scholz

Carter Scholz isn’t a prolific writer. He published a grim, realistic novella about an interstellar spaceship, Gypsy, in 2015 – one of my favorite SF reads. There’s a handful of other short fiction, and only 2 novels: 1984’s Palimpsests and this one, Radiance – an overlooked masterpiece.

Scholz doesn’t write to earn the butter on his bread, and that shows. Unlike so many authors who just churn out stuff that needs to please fandom and sales figures, he does what he wants. That results in singular fiction, and Radiance is a remarkable, brilliant, demanding novel.

Not science fiction in the speculative sense, it is a novel about science. Also the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ needs a caveat: important parts of Radiance are based in reality. It is a roman à clef set in a government lab in California, a veiled ,

centering on two nuclear physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War & start of the Dotcom Bubble, nuclear bombs & Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks, accelerationism, and the great scientific project of mankind. (quoted from Gwern’s impressive site on Radiance, that includes a free, annotated e-book edition)

I don’t normally do this, but I want to start with 2 pictures of the blurbs, because I feel they are not just the usual hyperbole taken out of context by the publisher, but really do the book justice, and, taken together, capture its spirit.

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REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.

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SLECHT NIEUWS VOOR DOCTOR PAF DE PIERENNAAIER, PANDEMONIUM IN DE GRAUWZONE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1998)

I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died of chronic health problems due to heavy drinking in 2008 – a slow suicide. He was bipolar and suffered from paranoid anxiety. His books are hard to find and long OOP, but over the years I’ve managed to collect most of his work. This particular book seemed like the logical one to read right now, given the covid pandemic that’s ravaging the world. The title is a bit idiomatic, but could be translated as ‘Bad news for Dr. Poof the Worm-seamer, Pandemonium in the Grayzone’.

The rest of this post will be in Dutch, but stay tuned for a review of Dune Messiah. I hope to further explore the themes of my long analysis of Dune itself, and see how Herbert’s stance on determinism & love for tragedy evolves throughout the series.


Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, pandemonium in de GrauwzoneIk heb al wat geschreven over Jean-Marie Berckmans, en ik ga proberen mezelf hier niet te herhalen. Lees dus eventueel eerst mijn eerbetoon aan de man waar ik ooit het podium mee deelde op een literaire avond in een jeugdhuis. Ik heb ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat uit 1995 gerecenseerd – met ontluisterende foto’s van diezelfde literaire avond, want het geromantiseer van Berckmans’ zogenaamde rock ‘n roll dat je hier en daar al eens tegenkomt is totaal misplaatst. Tot slot, hier nog drie alinea’s over de J.M.H. biografie van Chris Ceustermans die 10 jaar na zijn dood verscheen.

Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, Pandemonium in de Grauwzone is kort, zoals de meeste van Berckmans’ boeken – slechts 132 pagina’s. Het is wat radicaler dan Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat door zijn rechtlijnige vastberadenheid, ook al zijn de meeste thema’s grotendeels hetzelfde: angst, armoede, drinken als schild en medicijn, de stront van het leven.

De openingsscène is fantastisch – het is winter, en de Creutzfeldt-Jakob epidemie houdt huis in de Grauwzone – de nieuwe naam voor Barakstad: Berckmans’ Antwerpen rondom Café De Raaf in de Lange Lozanastraat. Het uitbreken van de dollekoeienziekte moet voor Jean-Marie een soort bevestiging zijn geweest: plots wordt de gehele wereld gedwongen om mee paranoia te zijn.

Maar al snel krijgt het boek iets monotoon. Een van de kwaliteiten van Taxi… was net de afwisseling: elk deel had een eigen karakter. Niet zo in Slecht nieuws: dat is geen afwisseling van verhalen en korte stukken en brieven zoals in zoveel van Berckmans’ andere boeken, maar een aaneenschakeling van korte teksten in dezelfde setting, met een duidelijke chronologie. Dit is een verhaal met een begin en een einde.
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MARY TOFT; OR, THE RABBIT QUEEN – Dexter Palmer (2019)

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

My love for Version Control, Dexter Palmer’s previous novel, is no secret. It was one of the best book I’ve read in 2016. It’s the only time travel novel I know that doesn’t short circuit, maybe because it’s not primarily a time travel novel to begin with – but something more akin to a near future Jonathan Franzen book. So when I saw this new one advertised, I pre-ordered it instantly, and started it the moment it was delivered to my door: that’s how high my expectations were.

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, Palmer’s third book, is not speculative fiction. It’s a historical novel set in 1726, about something that really happened and yet reeks of magic: Mary Toft, a farmer’s wife, confounded England’s medical community by giving birth to seventeen dead rabbits. The rabbits aren’t whole though – it’s usually just a head, some legs and a bit of intestines. To the 21st century reader, it’s immediately clear this must have been a hoax, so Palmer doesn’t rely on magical wonder for tension.

What we get instead is a book dealing with the psychology of collective delusions & expectations that guide perception – an epistemological tale indeed. A book about Truth. Add to that a focus on the human penchant for the dark, and you get a book that’s right up my ally.

Yet I was not fully convinced. Or at least – my expectations were not met, and the book proves its own point. Had I read this book without reading Version Control first, my reaction to it would have been different, but I’m still not exactly sure how…

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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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PATTERN RECOGNITION – William Gibson (2003)

Pattern Recognition

In an interview a few days ago, Andrew Rosen – former CEO of Theory, a fashion brand – says that “the future leaders of fashion companies are going to be marketers, not merchants, merchants being “the guys that understand how to put everything together and tell the story.” Hubertus Bigend, the antihero of this novel, and CEO of advertising company Blue Ant, says something similar: “Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.

The novel published 16 years ago, one might think Gibson visionary, but Rosen in the same interview says his father identified change already in the mid-70ies, “because that was when designers, and designer-identified products, became the most important things in the business, not manufacturing companies”. In the early 90ies, grim comedian Bill Hicks took on the pernicious power of advertising and marketing too, in a famous stand-up routine.

All this not to say Gibson wrote an irrelevant novel, on the contrary, Gibson wrote a novel that is very much of these times, dealing with topics – branding, globalization, originality, monoculture – that define big parts of our contemporary lives. It then doesn’t surprise that the Wikipedia page on Pattern Recognition is quite long, and even has quotes from postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson on the novel. Yes: Gibson is that kind of powerhouse, the kind that attracts the attention of a powerhouse like Jameson.

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THE FARTHEST SHORE – Le Guin & THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Hemingway

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

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