Tag Archives: Review

ZENDEGI (2010) & DISPERSION (2020) – Greg Egan

The main dish this time is Greg Egan’s novel Zendegi, a rich brew of near-future Iran, metaverse gaming, AI-modeling, mind-uploading and family tragedy – very human. It’s a bit of an atypical title in Egan’s oeuvre, and totally different from 2008’s Incandescence.

I’ll end with an appraisal of Dispersion, a fairly recent 158-page novella about a breakdown in a pastoral-ish society with 6 factions that operate more or less in different dimensions, out of sync most of the time. Egan demonstrates that the scientific mindset is the way out, not distrust and tribalism.


ZENDEGI  (2010)

Zendegi Greg EganI enjoyed Zendegi, even though the novel could have been better. Egan offers a story that tries to do a lot, which makes for a diverse reading experience. At first it is a near-future political thriller set in Iran, and it morphs into a story that combines a family tragedy with stuff about differing cultures, AI and mind-uploading.

Egan admits in his notes that the first part of the book “was always destined to be overtaken by reality”. He finished it “in July 2009, a month after the widely disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad”, followed by massive demonstrations and brutal crackdowns. Even though what Egan described in a fictional 2012 didn’t come to pass, he expressed the hope “that this part of the story captures something of the spirit of the times and the courage and ingenuity of the Iranian people.” It is no spoiler Egan’s future Iran more or less embraces modernity again. Continue reading

CHILDREN OF TIME – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

Children of Time Tchaikovsky

After writing a 10-book fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt, Tchaikovsky published Children of Time, his first science fiction novel. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award and it is generally considered one of his best novels.

Tchaikovsky seems to be well loved, and he provides much to love: he is even more productive than Alastair Reynolds, that other British commercial powerhouse. In 2021 he published 2 novels and 3 novellas, totaling 1,473 pages.

Science fiction is first and foremost a genre of ideas. Hard SF even more so, and while Tchaikovsky himself might not think in genres, I’ve seen this book described as Hard SF by lots of readers. Color me amazed that I found the ideas in this book severely lacking. My amazement only grew when I learned that Tchaikovsky holds a degree in zoology.

That degree might explain his interest in spiders, but it doesn’t explain the scientific bullshit. And as bullshit isn’t the only problem this book has, it will be no surprise that my review will be a negative one, much to my own dismay.

I really looked forward to reading this: I was promised some solid, original science fiction, with alien aliens and clever evolutionary world building. Even though I know blurbs and hypes should be distrusted, I willingly and knowingly walked into the muck that is Children of Time – hope is a nasty, bitter thing.

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THE HIGH SIERRA: A LOVE STORY – Kim Stanley Robinson (2022)

The High Sierra Kim Stanley Robinson coverMy fondness for Kim Stanley Robinson is no secret. I’ve only been disappointed by two of his books: The Memory of Whiteness, and Red Mars – which I didn’t even finish. And while I haven’t read all of his novels – 6 to go – whenever he publishes something new, I instantly buy and read it. Even if it is something as seemingly bizarre as a non-fiction book about hiking in the Californian Sierra Nevada.

It’s marketed somewhat as an autobiography as well: “Robinson’s own life-altering events, defining relationships, and unforgettable adventures form the narrative’s spine. And he illuminates the human communion with the wild and with the sublime, including the personal growth that only seems to come from time spent outdoors.”

Well – I think that part of the marketing is a bit off, but nonetheless I enjoyed reading this book. I’ll say a few words about why I did in a second, but let me first quote a part of the marketing blurb that is true: “a gorgeous, absorbing immersion in a place, born out of a desire to understand and share one of the greatest rapture-inducing experiences our planet offers. Packed with maps, gear advice, more than 100 breathtaking photos, and much more, it will inspire veteran hikers, casual walkers, and travel readers to prepare for a magnificent adventure.”

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TERMINAL BOREDOM: THIS IMMORTAL INCAL (3 short reviews)

Taste is a strange thing. We all know it, yet it continues to amaze me how different it can be, even in between people who often align. This post collects some thoughts on 3 books that were highly recommended by other bloggers whose tastes at times tend to be similar to mine.

As you can guess, none of the three titles – Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki, This Immortal by Zelazny and The Incal by Jodorowsky and Mœbius – worked for me.

In each case, I advise you follow the links to the other blogs to check out the other reviews – otherwise you might miss out on a book that could be a gem for you.


TERMINAL BOREDOM – Izumi Suzuki (2021)

Terminal Boredom SuzukiAccording to Jesse from Speculiction, this collection of short stories was the best book he read published in 2021, and he gave it 5 stars – which doesn’t happen much on his blog. Also Ola from Re-enchantment was generally impressed, albeit not as much.

Terminal Boredom collects 7 existential science fiction stories written between the mid-70ies and the mid-1980s, before Izumi Suzuki committed suicide in 1986, aged 36. Apparently she is a bit of a countercultural icon in Japan, and she had a tumultuous life, working as keypunch operator, hostess, nude model, and actor – both in pink films as in avant-garde theater.

It is the first time her work appears in English, and the stories were translated by 6 different people: Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O’Horan.

It’s interesting that this collection is framed in feminist terms, many reviews stressing the gender content. I think this framing is more dictated by marketing in our own times than the actual foundations of the stories themselves. While gender is a theme, no doubt, I would not say it is Suzuki’s focus, not at all.

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THE CHANGELING SEA – Patricia A. McKillip (1988)

The Changeling Sea McKillip

A few days ago, I read that Patricia A. McKillip died on the 6th of May, at the age of 74. I basically dropped what I was reading, and decided to read The Changeling Sea, so I could quickly post a review here as a small hommage.

I felt the need to do so because McKillip’s debut, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, made such an impression on me that I wanted to contribute my bit to keep McKillip’s flame burning.

The Changeling Sea is a short work, only 137 pages, but still a full novel – I wouldn’t call this a novelette as I’ve read here and there.

It’s also classified as young adult, but while some 14-year-olds will probably like this too, it is a very mature work. Rather straightforward and simple on the surface, and as such fairly easy to read, but I would not say this is juvenile, not at all. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. There are other similarities to Le Guin’s masterpiece as well: there’s some magic, and an island setting.

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FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID – Philip K. Dick (1974)

flow-my-tears-the-policeman-said-pkd-kresekJust a short review this time.

The more I read PKD and talk about him with fans, the more I get the impression that PKD is the kind of author that is especially read during one’s teens and early twenties. In that sense he is formative, but he’s often abandoned later, at least, lots of his work is, and many fans only recommended 1, 2 or 3 books while they have read lots of his novels.

Before this one, I had read Ubik, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly. I didn’t think particularly highly of any of those, but there was enough there to keep on reading Dick. Guess what: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said fits in neatly with that experience. It’s an okay novel, but it’s also muddled and bereft of any real depth. And despite Dick’s reputation, it’s not that wonky or weird either.

I’ll get to all that in a minute, but even though it fitted my previous encounters with his prose, Flow My Tears did alter my mind about PKD: I won’t actively seek out any of his novels anymore. If I happen to come across one cheap second hand, I’ll pick it up in a heartbeat, no doubt. But I’m not going to buy any of his work new again, or even look out for it in the second hand shops. And so while I’m still vaguely interested in reading The Man in the High Castle, The Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year and Time out of Joint, it will be serendipity that will decide whether I’ll read them or not. I might still buy a best of PKD short story collection, as I hear his real strength lies there – we’ll see.

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CAFÉ DE RAAF NOG STEEDS GESLOTEN – J.M.H. Berckmans (1990)

Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten JMH BerckmansA post in Dutch, again about cult writer Jean-Marie Berckmans, who died in 2008 – after a lifelong struggle with manic-depression, anxiety and addiction. His books are OOP and hard to find. I’m slowly working my way through his oeuvre.

This review is about his 3rd book. The title translates as “The Raven Bar Is Still Closed”. The bar really existed and was situated in the Lange Lozannastraat in Antwerp, Belgium. A commemorative plaque was put on the building’s facade in 2018.

Next post will be in English again – probably on Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by PKD.


Ik heb reeds over Berckmans geschreven, en indien je niet vertrouwd bent met wie hij was kan je best eerst wat ik eerder schreef lezen – links vind je onderaan.

Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten werd vrij snel na zijn 2e debuut Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei gepubliceerd, en zowel vormelijk als thematisch sluit het naadloos aan bij die bundel. Een aantal van de verhalen in Café De Raaf dateren trouwens al van voor Zevenslaper, en heel de bundel was zo goed als klaar in het voorjaar van 1990. Alles wat ik over Zevenslaper schreef geldt dus eigenlijk ook voor dit werk, en ik vermoed ook dat het veelal zal gelden voor Rock & roll met Frieda Vindevogel uit 1991, waarvan een aantal verhalen ook al langer aan het rijpen waren.

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THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)

The Lions of Al-Rassan

When I read The Fionavar Tapestry six years ago, I was totally enamored by it. Kay’s debut series is a high fantasy classic with overtones of Frazer’s Golden Bough. At the time I wrote – rather pompously – that “Kay manages to convey one of the key aspects of a Romantic worldview so, so well: we, mortal humans, are part of a vast Whole that is mysterious, ancient, uncaring and unforgiving. This Whole determines us, but at the same time we determine parts of the Whole too. We cannot expect the Whole to do our bidding, that we have to do ourselves. In acknowledging this, and in doing this bidding, living our lives, there is heroism and honor to be found.”

I still stand by these words, but nevertheless I find myself puzzled by certain aspects of The Lions of Al-Rassan that tie into said Romanticism: the ethics of violent heroism and honor as it is portrayed in Kay’s sixth novel – considered by many to be his best, in tandem with 1990’s Tigana.

I didn’t finish Tigana, abandoning it quickly because I couldn’t get over its obvious artificial nature, and because something in the prose didn’t ring true. Maybe I should have persisted, but either way I’m glad I didn’t give up on Kay because of it: The Lions Of Al-Rassan made my cry three times – once even for the duration of a couple of pages. No mean feat, no mean feat at all. So while I will raise some critical questions in this review, make no mistake about it: I enjoyed this book very, very much, and if historical fantasy is something you enjoy, do not hesitate to try Al-Rassan yourself.

The novel leans heavily on the Reconquista of Spain, which took about 4 centuries, but Kay compresses it into a single lifetime. Its setting resembles the Iberian peninsula, but the Muslims, Christians and Jews go by other names. Kay himself has talked about the benefits of historical fantasy as a genre:

First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.

I’m not sure I agree, at least, not in the case of Al-Rassan, because it is all so instantly recognizable as Spain somewhere in the 11 to 15th century, and if you’re a wee bit familiar with European history, the Kindath clearly are Jews, the Asharites clearly Muslims and the Jaddites clearly Christians.

That does not mean Kay didn’t manage to write a story about universal themes: the “interplay between bigotry and tolerance”, the “uses and misuses of religion for political ends” and “the real price of war paid in bloodshed, loss and grief.”

He did write something universal, but not because the story was fictionalized in a world with two moons, and names and some other stuff was changed. I think the story is universal simply because these themes are universal in and by themselves. The fact that Kay turned it into a successful story doesn’t have that much to do with the chosen genre but simply with his narrative craft, authorial decisions and excellent prose.

As for genre: I should warn potential readers with a narrow taste that this book hardly features magic or other tropes specific to (high) fantasy. There’s the two moons that just serve as a backdrop, and one sole instance of precognition that drives a crucial part of the story. That’s it. But there are assassins, horses, palaces, and sword-fighting. And because Kay does all that extremely well, most fans should get their kicks even without dragons, demons or fire-bolts.

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HOW MOLECULAR FORCES AND ROTATING PLANETS CREATE LIFE: THE EMERGENCE AND EVOLUTION OF PROKARYOTIC CELLS – Jan Spitzer (2021)

How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life Jan Spitzer

I thought I understood a thing or two about biology, and, more specifically, its genetic and general molecular side as well. I’ve read a couple of introductory level university course textbooks, like Biology, Evolution and Human Nature by Goldsmith & Zimmerman (2001), which was already pretty heavy on chemistry for somebody without an academic background in hard sciences, and a few more specific books, like the excellent The Flexible Phenotype by Piersma & Van Gils (2011) and Alex Rosenberg’s brilliant, rigorous Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology (2006).

I also thought I had a bit of grasp on origin of life theory, since I read Nick Lane’s excellent The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life (2015), a book I can’t say I understood completely, but enough so to enjoy it a lot.

Last year, I was absolutely gobsmacked by Contingency and Convergence: Towards a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russell Powell, a 2020 publication in the Vienna Series of Theoretical Biology, and so when I checked what else was published in that series, I didn’t hesitate to buy How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells by Jan Spitzer – I was intrigued by the subject matter because of Lane’s book, and if I’d survived that, how hard could it be?

Well, it turns out this was harder, much harder, yet I probably enjoyed it even more. Part of that enjoyment is witnessing other people’s genius, but the main reason I enjoyed it so much was because it provided entirely new and much more detailed insight in the miracle that is our existence.

Before I get to a more detailed discussion of the book, please consider the following drawing – a typical representation of a bacterial cell I found somewhere on the public domain.

prokaryote cell

This is the way most people are taught about cells. We tend to think we *understand* cells this way – at least, if we study some more of these drawings – including ones that zoom in a bit – and the accompanying chapters on cell biology carefully.

Now consider this fragment from Jan Spitzer’s book, and, for starters, compare the way the cytoplasm is represented in the generic textbook drawing with what Spitzer writes about it.

From a purely chemical point of view, a bacterial cell is exceedingly complicated. The cytoplasm contains in round numbers ~2,500,000 protein molecules of ~1,000 different kinds, ~200,000 transfer RNAs of ~50 kinds, ~1,500 short-lived messenger RNAs of ~400 kinds. (…) The number of ribosomes can vary between 2,000 for a slow-growing population and 70,000 in a fast-growing population. These biomacromolecules are hydrated by a relatively concentrated (~4%) electrolyte – a multicomponent buffered solution of simple ions, particularly potassium ions and phosphate, and other low-molecular weight metabolites from biochemical pathways (…). All this chemistry of long DNA double helices (partly condensed or coacervated by cationic proteins and amines), RNAs, and their protein complexes, all in their correct three-dimensional conformations, and all exhibiting their molecular motions – from bond rotations to large conformational motions and rotational and translational Brownian diffusion, taking place on timescales of many orders of magnitude, from femtosecond infrared motions to physiological motions at milliseconds, seconds, and hours – all this molecular motion is crowded and enclosed within the hydrophobic cell envelope. The cell envelope contains a lipid bilayer membrane, studded with a large number of integral hydrophobic proteins that sense the physicochemical state of both the external nutrient environment and the internal cytoplasmic side of the membrane and adjust the molecular and ionic traffic across the membrane accordingly. (…) The overall chemical system is in cyclic disequilibrium, where cells approximately double in size and then divide on the physiological timescale of seconds to hours.

Additionally, in all this, also the positions of all those different molecules matter, as there is no “bulk aqueous reservoir where chemical potentials (concentrations) are independent of position”, and so the cell system is “thus vectorial”, with aqueous nano-channels and nano-pools of dissolved ions and molecules.

It is yet another example of the huge gap that exists between what people – even highly educated people – think they know, and how the world actually is. It makes books like Spitzer’s humbling and full of wonder – even if that wonder is abstract, dry, and highly complex. Do we truly appreciate the wonder of life enough?

There’s one important caveat: however detailed that quote might seem, it only scratches the surface too. Or, to quote Spitzer again: “Today the molecular crowdedness of a living cell is an uncontroversial and well-appreciated fact, but its overall spatiotemporal complexity remains poorly understood.”


Just to be clear: I’m not the target audience for Spitzer’s book. Certain parts – when he got into the nuts and bolts of detailed chemical stuff – were way too advanced for me. I’d say about 1/3rd of the text was too technical for my current brain. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t understand Spitzer’s general message – it only meant that I could not contradict him on the technicalities. The fact that the main text is only 170 pages, but about 1/3rd of the full volume is academic credentials (20 pages of notes, 26 pages of references, a 5 page index) is indicative of its intellectual rigorousness.

I think one of the reasons that makes this book successful is that Spitzer approached it as a hobby. He has had no academic career in biology, but he is a physical chemist (PhD) and a chemical engineer (MS) with expertise in thermodynamics and aqueous colloids, who worked as a industrial R&D manager, on synthetic latexes and emulsion polymerization processes. The fact that he is retired and has no skin in the game allowed him to write freely and thoroughly. More information on Jan Spitzer and his ideas can be found here.

In the remainder of this text, I will try to summarize Spitzer’s main points, and conclude with a list of quotes & fragments of knowledge that struck me and that I wish to keep record of. Most of those should also be worthwhile to readers with an advanced interest in science, but you might need a dictionary depending on your prior knowledge – I know I needed one. As a coda, there’s a shortened version of a reading list Spitzer himself provides in his introduction.

For a review by someone with an academic background in these matters, I refer you to the Small Things Considered blog. It has a good, fairly detailed outline of the book. It is the only review of the book I found online, so I hope I contribute a bit to Spitzer’s dissemination with my own review – especially for those that are looking for more information about it without easy access to academic libraries.

Do I recommend it? I loved it, but if you’re not academically trained in these matters ymmv, so much is clear – if you’re adventurous, like a serious challenge, and want to keep your mind limber, go for it, I’d say. It’s also crystal clear that this is mandatory reading for anybody with a serious academic interest in the matter.

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WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE – Shirley Jackson (1962)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson (first cover Paul Bacon)Harold Bloom – the literary guru that claimed literature and politics should have nothing to do with each other – challenged the idea that Shirley Jackson’s work should be included in the Western canon. Nevertheless, in 2001 he edited a volume of Jackson’s short stories. There he wrote that “Her art of narration [stays] on the surface, and could not depict individual identities. Even ‘The Lottery’ wounds you once, and once only.”

Bloom is dead, and in 20 years time his work likely will only be read by a few academics. I think there’s a fair chance Shirley Jackson will still be read widely 50 years from now.

I’m not trying to dis academia, but Bloom’s tale is stark warning for us meta-writers to not confuse talking taste with pontificating. I have not read The Lottery – I will – but based on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’d say that Bloom’s claim about Jackson’s “art of narration” is a bit off.

The Western canon seems a bit of an outdated concept, or, at least, it is outdated as an apolitical idea: the reasons why something becomes a “classic” surely ain’t devoid of politcs. Either way, there is no doubt about the fact that Shirley Jackson belongs at least in the canon of speculative fiction – that peculiar subset of literature.

It turns out that We Have Always Lived in the Castle doesn’t contain any speculative or supernatural elements, yet it evokes an uncanny atmosphere that will delight many readers looking for Otherness. However strange it may be, Jackson manages to stay close to the human experience, and as a result she has written a book that will keep on resonating with generations to come.

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EUROPE IN WINTER – Dave Hutchinson (2016)

Europe in Winter Dave Hutchinson (Langley)I read Europe in Autumn in 2016, and Europe at Midnight in 2017. I enjoyed them both a lot – Autumn was even one of my favorite reads that year, back when I read a book each week. But for some reason Europe in Winter has been lying on my TBR for nearly 5 years. I really can’t tell you why: I simply was drawn more to other books each time I needed to pick a new read.

The appeal of a review like this is limited: the third book in a series that was much praised, but that seems to have been a bit forgotten as well – even though this third one won the BSFA. Hutchinson published a final book, Europe at Dawn in 2018, as well as a solid space opera novella in 2017, Acadie.

Either way, if you haven’t read the previous books, by all means, read them – that is, if John le Carré-infused near-future thrillers appeal to you. The good thing is that you can stop after every installment: Hutchinson wrote it one book at a time, so while you do have to have read the previous books to enjoy each new installment, you don’t have to read the next one as Dave never planned a 3 or 4 book series.

That said: I had forgotten all the details of the previous books, and it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of this one. That’s because Hutchinson’s main strength in these books is twofold: the world building and his knack for short stories.

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CHAPTERHOUSE: DUNE – Frank Herbert (1985)

This is the 6th & final post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 10,700 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune and Heretics of Dune.

My text on Dune itself focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also looks at its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and at the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things. My text on God Emperor is nearly 9,000 words and examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. It also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write, and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series – contrasting with its prior central theme of the absence of free will. There’s also bits on the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and various inconsistencies in the novel. I’ve written 11,600 words on Heretics, among other things, the text looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those in Dune. I try to explain why I liked this book best of the sequels so far, even with all its shortcomings. It ends with a section on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this final text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Chapterhouse Dune Frank Herbert (Schoenherr)“Truth is an empty cup.”

People change. 10 years ago I read the Dune series for the first time, and it became my favorite series ever. In 2019 I started my reread of the series, and now I’ve finally come to the end of that project, finishing Chapterhouse: Dune, the 6th book. 10 years ago, I thought Chapterhouse was the pinnacle of the series – today, I think it is its nadir, and I would not call the series as a whole a favorite anymore.

In what follows, I will first try to explain why I think Chapterhouse: Dune is the weakest of the bunch. The bulk of this post will be an analysis of the book’s main themes, and their relation to the previous books.

For starters an examination of the Bene Gesserit. The main question I still had after reading Heretics was about their intentions, and I’ll check how Odrade’s emotions play out in Chapterhouse as well. I’ll also look into the question of free will again – the main issue of the first Dune. I’ve written shorter sections on change & creativity – change being the series overall constant, on Nietzschean morality – yet another recurring theme, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and, finally, on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy, something that popped up in Heretics already.

Before I wrote my actual analysis, I lined up 85 quotes with a total of 5500 words. Not all of those made the cut, but the text is quote heavy nonetheless. If you don’t want to read quotes, just skip them: in most cases, you should be able to follow my reasonings without them.

I’ll end with a short assessment of the series in general.

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PACIFIC STORM – Linda Nagata (2020)

Pacific Storm Nagata

Linda Nagata published her first book, The Bohr Maker, in 1995, and she is best known for her “nanopunk” novels – a genre I didn’t know existed, or at least, a moniker I wasn’t familiar with. Nanopunk is basically a subgenre of transhumanist science fiction, set in the far-future with lots of nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

I had been eyeing her work for some time, nearly buying Edges from 2019, the first in the Inverted Frontier series. Not sure what held me back, but when I saw she’d published this in 2020, I decided to give it a go.

Not that this is nanopunk: Pacific Storm is a near-future thriller set in Hawaii – Nagata has been living there herself since she was 10.

The book is set at least 20 years from now, possibly even a few decades later. The United States has undergone major political change as its current political parties don’t exist anymore, and it has huge debts so China, so much the US government is even willing to lease control of Hawaii to the Chinese in exchange for debt relief.

Set against the backdrop of an oncoming major hurricane, Ava Arnett, a Honolulu cop, gets sucked into a terrorism plot, prompting her to question the trustworthiness of the government AI she relies on to predict human behavior. Arnett – like Hawaii itself – is still haunted by the consequences of a devastating hurricane that hit the island nine years ago.

Pacific Storm‘s blend of politics, AI, conspiracy, extreme weather, hobbyist gene-editing and surveillance state smart glasses offers much to like. Nagata publishes her books on her own imprint – Mythic Island Press – and I think Pacific Storm could have very well become a bestseller if a major publisher would’ve thrown some serious marketing funds at it. Having said that, can I also recommend it?

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SEVEN SURRENDERS – Ada Palmer (2017)


Seven Surrenders PalmerNormally I read more than 15 other books between installments of a series, but as I was so hooked by Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer’s debut, I decided to read book 2 of Terra Ignota quickly.

Seven Surrenders is not a stand alone novel, and this review isn’t stand alone either. If you haven’t, please read my review of Lightning first – in which I try to explain why that book nearly flabbergasted me.

To cut to the chase: this review will be less raving. While I loved the bulk of Seven Surrenders, a few problems did arise, and taken as a whole – the two novels are one story playing out over a few days only – I can’t give it the full 5 stars. Some of that will be nitpicking. All things considered, it still is a strong 4.5 star read – not a mean feat by any measure.

It is only in Seven Surrenders Palmer shows her true hand: while there were hints of it in Too Like the Lightning, this part makes it fully clear this series is an over the top, theatrical series, heavily influenced by the pulp side of Japanese anime. Not that Palmer writes only for effect and show: she also wants to articulate serious thoughts. And even though she manages to do that, those thoughts also form the heel at which this kind of reader will aim his arrow.

More on that in a minute. Let me be loud and clear first: together, the first half of Terra Ignota – there are 4 books in total – is audacious, daring, dazzling, intricate, high octane, entertaining, dense, a bit pompous, at times soapy & melodramatic, original, fresh. A full on recommendation for anybody in for challenging science fiction. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the two remaining books, but as Palmer walks a tightrope, we’ll see. For those who were still on the fence after reading Too Like the Lightning, if that didn’t grab you, Seven Surrenders will not change your mind: don’t even bother, I’d say.

So, taking stock, Too Like the Lightning remains a favorite book. As a series though, based on my reading of Seven Surrenders, I doubt it will eventually match The Book of the New Sun or Anathem as an intellectual achievement of speculative wonder. That’s because there’s also something more fundamental to be said than nitpicking. The biggest problems I experienced have to do with some of the philosophy underlying the books. To explain that I will need to spoil certain parts – including spoilers for Lightning.

It might seem strange for a book I thoroughly enjoyed, but the rest of this review will generally be critical – as I said, check the first review for the laudatory part, all of it still stands, even with the caveats I’ll voice after the jump.

For those readers that turn to this blog for critical analysis, this is were I start my dissection of Terra Ignota. Obviously some of this criticism might change after I read book 3 & 4, but as I also draw a lot from interviews, I’m pretty confident the bulk of what I’ll say will also apply to the full series. And even if certain things will change significantly in the remainder of the series, I hope in that case my analysis will remain interesting to map how certain themes progress throughout the series.

I want to warn you: I’ve written 8600 words. You may not want to read it all, so I’ve provided sections with a heading. Amongst other things, I will discuss the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the embedded case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D., the question whether this utopia could devolve into war, a gender issue and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building.

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PACIFIC EDGE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

I first started this review with an opening about Robinson who can’t write characters according to some – but then I noticed I already did that for The Gold Coast. Either way, it bears repeating. Depending on what one has sampled from his work – 21 novels by now, and hundreds of pages short stories – I can understand the sentiment to a degree. But my feelings don’t agree at all. The last 50 pages of Pacific Edge made me cry two times, and that doesn’t happen a lot: last time was about a year ago – it is such a heartfelt, human novel.

Pacific Edge is part of the Orange County triptych, and in a way that denomination does the novel a disservice: some people might consider this to be final book in a trilogy and refrain from reading it because of that.

All Three Californias books are stand-alone novels, each presenting a different future for an area south of Los Angeles – one about survivors of a nuclear war, another a cyberpunkish dystopia, and this one a utopia. While there are some minor formal connections, you don’t miss a thing if you only read those that appeal to you.

I liked them all, but this might be me favorite – because of the strong emotions it evoked, even if The Wild Shore was a similar human book, and Gold Coast made me cry too – about a year ago.

I will not offer comparisons between the three books, but limit myself to examine why it still works as a utopian novel 32 years down the line, and I’ll include some notes too about its remarkable relationship to KSR’s latest, his magnum opus The Ministry for the Future.

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