Tag Archives: Review

4 SHORT REVIEWS

After I finished the fantastic Version Control, I read the excellent Keith Rowe biography by Brian Olewnick. I might still review that, but it’s a hard review to write for an audience unfamiliar with Rowe’s particular branch of experimental music.

Sadly, after those 2 great books, I’ve hit three I did not even finish. That and the relentless summer heat didn’t really urge me to start writing the reviews. Fortunately, that streak of bad reading luck came to an end, as I’ve also read a great, recent SF novella by Peter Watts, and finished yet another book on Rembrandt.

As the summer drought is still not over, I’ve decided I simply won’t bother trying to write longer, in-depth reviews for these books. I won’t even try to write up Hard To Be A God, the 1964 political allegory by the Strugatsky brothers, and the first book in that row of DNFs. I stopped after only 40 pages, not enough to write something meaningful, except that it was all too obviously allegorical for my tastes. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s those 4 mini-reviews…

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VERSION CONTROL – Dexter Palmer (2016)

Version Control

“History lives in the gap between information and the truth.”

Let me get this out of the way: Version Control – Dexter Palmer’s second novel – is BRILLIANT. Recurrent readers know that I don’t often slap on such high praise.

It might just be the best 2016 book I’ve read, and it might just be the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s either this or Zero K for both questions – I’m having a hard time deciding. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Then again, maybe Version Control might have one thing speaking against it that Zero K has less of. More on that later, especially as this one thing doesn’t really matter right now.

The book didn’t get a lot of attention from the online sci-fi community, so maybe a few introductory remarks are at hand. Version Control is a near-future novel, set in about 10 to 15 years from now. Rebecca Wright is the main character. She works in customer support for an Internet dating site, the same site where she met her husband, Philip Steiner. Philip is a physicist working on a “causality violation device” – a kind of low-key time machine one could say. His work has stalled his career and the physics community doesn’t really take him serious anymore. The couple has lost their son a few years ago.

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THE SIRENS OF TITAN – Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The Sirens Of Titan

I generally read up on book before I review them, and it doesn’t happen a lot I come across a good, thorough scholarly essay that’s available online. The fact that I did find one about The Sirens Of Titan attests to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s status as an author embraced by the literary establishment.

A big part of that is the fact that Vonnegut did not write clearcut science fiction, but something that seems more important to the uninitiated. His voice is critical, satirical, grotesque. The question of genre is exactly the subject of said essay. It’s written by Herbert G. Klein, and in doing so he tackles a lot of other aspects about this novel. It’s here.


The Sirens Of Titan is Vonnegut’s second novel. Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my all-time favorite books, was published 10 years later. The general consensus is that SH5 is Vonnegut’s masterpiece, so I did not expect Sirens to top it, just as I didn’t expect Cat’s Cradle to top it. To be clear: it didn’t. If I have to believe what I’ve read, it is only in Sirens that Vonnegut really found his voice, and it indeed reads as what I’ve come to expect from him: similar in themes & method. But, it does not feel as invested and personal as SH5. Just below all the satire of his most known book is a thick layer of emotion, and that’s lacking here. As a result, I didn’t feel as invested in the characters & the storyline.

Still, Vonnegut had had his share of bad luck by 1959, and one would imagine that to be an emotional reservoir for any writer. Power reader, music historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia points out how the biographical does seep into this book, in yet another excellent text on Sirens, to be found on Conceptual Fiction.

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RAVEN STRATAGEM – Yoon Ha Lee (2017)

Raven Stratagem

While I don’t really feel like it, I can’t but start this review with an opinion on a minor event in the blogosphere some time ago. If you have no interest in a discussion of ethics in SF, and just want my opinion on Raven Stratagem, scroll down to the actual review at the very end. The first part of the text might also be of interest to those who haven’t read any of Yoon Ha Lee’s books, as the discussion is much, much wider than that.

About a year ago, 3 people in the so-called Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury posted reviews about Ninefox Gambit, the first book of The Machineries Of Empire.

Contrary to popular opinion – 9FG won the Locus for Best First Novel – those reviews were essentially negative, on what are essentially moral grounds.

These three individuals are not marginal voices in SF fandom. Before most activity on her blog stopped – as she overdosed on commercially-hyped SF – Megan AM of From Couch To Moon was one the most respected and influential online reviewers of SF. Nina Allan is a speculative author herself: her most recent novel The Rift won the BSFA and the Red Tentacle. Jonathan McCalmont was shortlisted twice for the BSFA for best non-fiction writer, and writes for Strange Horizons and Interzone.

For starters, here are four quotes that capture the essence of the argument, with links to the original texts. Clicking the links is worth your while, as the original pieces are extremely well written, differ in their opinions on the book in crucial respects, and all have a number of valid, lucid insights. I have no intention to go into all arguments, and do not claim these quotes represent the texts in full. They do however show a convergence over at least one point of criticism, a point I do want to examine thoroughly.

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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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THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL NIGHTMARE – J.G. Ballard (1963)

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare

This collection of short fiction is my first exposure to James Graham Ballard – best known for diverse books as the controversial fetish exploration Crash, the autobiographical war novel Empire Of The Sun and the post-apocaloptic early clifi classic The Drowned World.

Some of the stories featured are published in other collections, and there are slightly different editions of this collection too – from 1984 onward under a different title, The Voices Of Time. But there’s also a slightly earlier collection that has a very similar title, The Voices Of Time And Other Stories, with an overlap of 3 stories with The Four-Dimensional Nightmare / The Voices Of Time.

I try to shed light on all that in a bit more detail at the end of this review, with an advice about which edition you should get.

First things first: my thoughts on the individual stories in this early collection of J.G. Ballard.

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF CHILDHOOD – David F. Lancy (2014)

The Anthropology Of Childhood

I bought David Lancy’s The Anthropology Of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings a few weeks after I learned I would become a father. It has been lying around for about two years, and as my daughter is starting to say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, now felt like the right time to start it. Verbally expressing preferences is a big deal on the road to personhood.

Lancy is a Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, who wrote and edited several books on childhood and culture, starting his own research in the 1970ies. This book feels like a summary of the entire field, and can be considered Lancy’s crowning achievement. He draws on his own research here and there, but the bulk of this book is based on Lancy’s reading of countless other sources, giving it a vast scope.

On the back cover, Barry Bogin of Loughborough University puts it like this: “the most comprehensive, and perhaps only, review of the human child in terms of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology. Based on the best of theory and field ethnography, it is essential for any study of human development and human nature.”

I read the 2nd edition, which adds over 750 new sources to the first edition that appeared in 2008. 750 extra sources: that should be an indication of this book’s thoroughness. There’s 104 pages of bibliography, plus a 6-page author index, a 5-page topic index and a 7-page society index – all small print. The text itself is 410 pages long, riddled with quotes from other studies.

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