Tag Archives: Science Fiction

HAWKSBILL STATION – Robert Silverberg (1968)

Hawksbill Station Silverberg (Steir)It is one of the wonders of the written word that a novel about time travel actually functions as a time machine itself – albeit a shaky one. Reading Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station takes us back to the end of the 60ies, but not fully: the possibility of truly experiencing the context in which readers in 1968 read this short novel for the first time is forever lost in time.

According to Lawrence Block, Silverberg wrote 4 books a month at the end of the 50ies and the beginning of the 60ies, “a quarter of a million words a month”. He did so in lots of genres, including “about 200 erotic novels published as Don Elliott” – to pay off the house he bought.

If anything, Hawksbill Station shows that Silverberg was indeed a hardened professional: the prose is rock solid and the pacing is great. But solid prose and great pacing don’t necessarily save a novel from becoming dated. So, has this story about a penal colony for future political prisoners in the early Paleozoic aged well?

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TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING – Ada Palmer (2016)

Too like the lighteningEver since its first book came out in 2016, I’ve been reluctant to start Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series – even though it was met with a lot of buzz and praise. Something about it seemed try-hard, and even pretentious. A science fiction novel set in 2454 with 18th century mannerisms made me put up my guard.

Not only those supposed mannerisms made me wary, but also the influence of 18th century thinkers. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been big on Voltaire, Diderot or Rousseau. Not that I want to dismiss the French Enlightenment out of hand, not at all, but I’ve never been drawn to the thinking & writing of that age and place.

It not only seemed pretentious, there really was a certain intellectual huff and puff surrounding this 4-part series. In a 2016 interview on The Qwillery Ada Palmer – history professor by day – voiced a part of her ambition:

Terra Ignota is most directly based on 18th century philosophical novels by figures like Voltaire and Diderot. They wrote speculative fiction too, of a sort, exploring imagined political systems, metaphysics, even aliens in Voltaire’s Micromegas. We’re used to using classic science fiction futures to ask questions about things like technology, heroism, or transhumanism, but I wanted to write one that would ask the kinds of questions 18th century authors asked, about cultural relativism, hierarchy, equality, and whether we can reconcile Justice and Providence.

And in the author’s notes and acknowledgments at the back of the book, she takes it up more than a few notches – an issue I’ll get back to at the end of my review.

I wanted it so much. So much sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I would cry, not because I was sad, but because it hurt, physical pain from the intensity of wanting something so much. I’m a good student of philosophy, I know my Stoics, Cynics, their advice, that, when a desire is so intense it hurts you, the healthy path is to detach, unwant it, let it go. (…) But there are a lot of reasons one can want to be an author: acclaim, wealth, self-respect, finding a community, the finite immortality of name in print, so many more. But I wanted it to add my voice to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars. And that isn’t just for me. It’s for your. Which means it was the right choice to hang on to the desire, even when it hurt so much.

Well, that’s pretentious indeed. So much even, it kinda hurt my eyes. As I read it before I started the book itself, I entered with extreme caution.

Guess what, dear reader. About 25 pages in, the quality of this book already shone through crystal clear – like when you put on a brilliant record and you know it’s going to be brilliant for the remainder, halfway the first song.

While the jury is still out on whether Palmer made me think truly new things – I’ll reserve that judgement for when I finish the full series – the rest of her sentiments seem merited. Too Like the Lightning is one of the best books I have ever read, regardless of genre. Extremely ambitious, yes, but as a work of imagination, so far – again, this is just the first book – it is up there with the greats: Anathem, The Book of The New Sun, Dune.

A whole lot of readers won’t be convinced of that: this is a tough cookie. No beach read, no space opera romp. And even readers that do like chewy might not click with this: taste is taste. I don’t do the novel justice by reducing it to ‘intellectual’ by the way: it is a thrilling, at times wondrous story.

I’ll try to elaborate on my sentiments after the jump, and while doing so also say a few words about Palmer’s philosophical project.

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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

2021 FAVORITES

The continuing pandemic freed up time this year as well, so I read 38 titles in 2021. As always, I won’t make too many promises about what I’ll read in the coming months, but I’ll finish my reread of the Dune series – Chapterhouse: Dune should be one of the next reviews I post. Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, M. John Harrison and Antwerp author J.M.H. Berckmans have become regulars on this blog, and they will remain so.

I’ll continue to read non-fiction too, I’ve amassed a bit more science books than I usually have on my pile – yearly picture below. New additions are books on vision and the brain, oceans and economy. I also hope to finally read Feynman’s QED on light. As for art books, I’m still reading on Picasso, and I’ll try to finally start with Becher or Twombly, long overdue.


Before I’ll get to this year’s favorites, a bit of blog stats for those of you who are interested in such a thing. I’ve again had a significant increase of traffic: 38,763 views and 21,108 visitors – about 16,000 and 8,000 more than in 2020. Lots of that traffic seems to be driven by my writings on Frank Herbert – I guess the Villeneuve movie increased the interest in analysis of his work.

Of the posts I wrote in 2021 Dune: Part One, God Emperor of Dune and The Book of the New Sun were most read: 1567, 1210 and 1106 views. To offer a bit of perspective: last year that top 3 was Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and The Ministry for the Future, and they only got 675, 501 and 363 views.

As for all-time stats, most read reviews so far are those for Dune Messiah (2742 views since published), Recursion (2631) and Piranesi (2255). There’s 14 posts with over 1000 views now, and an additional 23 with over 500 views in total. I’ve been blogging for 6 years, and so far I’ve published 266 posts.


As always, a big thank you to everyone who has read what I write, and an extra special thanks to those that have commented, linked or pressed the like button: much appreciated, it doesn’t go unnoticed. My best wishes to you and yours for 2022 and beyond.



FAVORITE READS

As for the actual favorite book list: below are the titles I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2021, six books in total – the older I get, the harder it seems to become to rate something the full 5 stars. If I had to pick one, I’d go for The Book of the New Sun, an old favorite that held up well to rereading, or maybe Contingency And Convergence – I learned so much from that book.

Honorable mentions for Eschbach’s The Hair-Carpet Weavers, Harrison’s Nova Swing, Robinson’s The Gold Coast, Cook’s The Black Company, Buchanan & Powell’s The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory, Stephenson’s Termination Shock and, in Dutch, Boon’s De Voorstad Groeit. All more than excellent reads, well worth your time.

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PERIHELION SUMMER – Greg Egan (2019)

Perhihelion Summer Greg EganIf you think Greg Egan isn’t to your liking – too dense, too much math, too much science – Perihelion Summer is the title for you. With hardly any science inside, this novella shows yet another side of Australia’s most reclusive science fiction author.

While it may have a difficult world in the title, the fact that Tor published it is an indication of its accessibility. Length is another argument to give it a chance: its 214 pages offer a short, smooth, engaging read. While every online bookstore or professional review I’ve consulted seems to consider this a novel, Egan himself calls it a novella on his own website. That classification does matter, as I’ll explain below.

So what’s this little gem about?

Well – climate change, but not as you know it. None of the man-made stuff of Termination Shock or The Ministry for the Future, but change brought about by Taraxippus – a black hole one-tenth the mass of the sun that passes through our solar system.

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TERMINATION SHOCK – Neal Stephenson (2021)

Termination Shock Neil Stephenson ToppingScience Fiction has always been about its own times too, and so today Cli-Fi – a term coined by Dan Bloom – is taking center stage more and more. While there is Cli-Fi that’s not speculative, so far most of it has been part of SF, and lots of SF authors will have to incorporate some of its elements, whether they want to or not: anybody writing about future Earth will have to deal with climate change one way or another. While we continue our journey into the 21st century, the Change will become less and less speculative, turning what started as a speculative genre into dead serious realism. Horror possibly. It’s clear that fiction about the changing climate is here to stay, in whatever form.

Over the past few months, I’ve read 3 high profile authors’ most recent takes on the genre: Bewilderment by Richard Powers, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson’s brand new Termination Shock.

I’ll briefly compare these three offerings, but let me first situate Termination Shock in Stephenson’s larger oeuvre, and also say something about its general merits. There will be no spoilers, but I’ll have to talk about the book’s core message – as that needs more than just a novel, but a megaphone too.

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FAREWELL, EARTH’S BLISS – D.G. Compton (1966)

Farewell, Earth's Bliss (Compton, Lloyd)There’s a few slow projects in progress on this blog: rereading favorites I haven’t reviewed yet (Foundation, Anathem, Frankenstein and maybe some Banks are in the queue), working my way slowly through the KSR, Greg Egan and M. John Harrison I haven’t read, reading Frank Herbert’s lesser novels (a form of masochism), read more of my non-fiction TBR, digesting the oeuvre of Flemish writer J.M.H. Berckmans, and checking out some of the vintage scifi Joachim Boaz recommends on his site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Some of Boaz’ recommendations have worked out really well for me: Non-Stop, Stand on Zanzibar, Beyond Apollo, Dying Inside, We Who Are About To…, An Infinite Summer, others less so: Ice, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire.

The British author David Guy Compton’s second speculative title falls somewhere in between. I didn’t fully love it, but it is not to be discarded either. Farewell, Earth’s Bliss combines 2 tropes: colonizing Mars and the prisoners’ colony.

I’m sure the story of unwanted people that are sent to a distant island or so has been told lots of times in regular fiction too, but science fiction obviously offers a bit more possibilities than some version of Australia. In 1967 Robert Silverberg published Hawksbill Station – a novel I have yet to read, and he uses time travel as the method of exile. [update: I read it in January 2022, click on the title for the review.] In the 1980ies Julian May takes that same idea for The Many-Coloured Land and makes an entire series out of it – one I loved as a teenager.

Stories about communities in isolation being abundant, the question then is whether Compton uses his Mars setting effectively – to wit, distinctively. The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is a bit more nuanced, as Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is social science fiction, no hard sci-fi or space laser stuff.

That’s easily explained by the fact that Compton simply was not interested in science fiction as such, and has read none of his peers’ stuff, as he expressed in a fairly long 2019 interview with Darrell Schweitzer on Black Gate: Continue reading

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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2xDNF: BLOOD MERIDIAN (1985) & BRASYL (2007)

A short post on 2 books I didn’t finish, mainly because of their prose.


BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST – Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian McCarthyDubbed as one of the ultimate Great American Novels by some, I looked forward to reading this, but DNFed at 30%. It’s basically a violent (anti-)Western with lots of descriptions of landscapes. I have no idea why it is included in some lists of speculative fiction.

Why did I quit? The prose didn’t click. I thought it was contrived, and convoluted because of that. Taste obviously, as lots of people seem to like its poetry, and even say it is genius. Lots of reviews on Goodreads extensively quote examples of sentences & entire passages, so take a look at those to see if it could work for you.

I also don’t buy the premise of the book – or what the general consensus seems to be on its premise – namely the fact that man is depraved. “Man” is such a generalization that statements like that are hardly interesting. True, at times some humans act in a depraved way, but the vast majority of people I know are good at heart. Then again, if I had kept on reading, I might have seen McCarthy was being ironic. Who knows?

For contrast, here’s Caryn James from the NYT on the novel in 1985: “This latest book is his most important, for it puts in perspective the Faulknerian language and unprovoked violence running through the previous works, which were often viewed as exercises in style or studies of evil. ”Blood Meridian” makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.”


BRASYL – Ian McDonald (2007)

BrasylBrasyl – a near-future account of Brazil – started out good, but at 30% I still couldn’t figure out what the story was about, and the stop-start prose started bugging me: chaotic & jumbled.

I started reading some reviews on Goodreads, and came across this by Ian James:

“the description of being able to see into parallel worlds was not at all believable, and it made no sense that the poison from a frog conferred the ability to do so in humans, just because that frog’s retina is supposedly capable of detecting a single quantum of light (and is thus able to see into the quantum world). Also, just because you can see billions of parallel worlds does not mean you can predict the future, find out answers to questions in your own world, or be able to travel in time. It made NO sense, and it was not explained at all. There was some gibberish about quantum computers somehow causing a sort of gateway between parallel worlds, but this unconvincing pseudo-scientific explanation was muddled up with the hallucinogenic or mind-altering psychic power “explanation” in other parts of the book.”

I decided to cut my loses, because it is exactly that kind of stuff that bugs me these days.

I liked River of Gods & Luna: New Moon a lot, but Luna: Wolf Moon didn’t convince me to read the third Luna installment. This time McDonald failed to convince me altogether. I still have The Dervish House on my TBR, we’ll see about that one.


Consult the author index for 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.

DUNE: PART ONE – Denis Villeneuve (2021)

Dune Part One Poster While this is not a movie blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the new Dune film that was released yesterday – except in the USA, where it will be released on October 22. For those that are interested, I’ve invested quite some time writing about Frank Herbert’s books and my reread of the Dune series in particular, resulting in a series of long posts – links at the end of this review.

What I will not do is compare this movie to Denis Villeneuve’s other sci fi work, as I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 or Arrival – even though I did read both stories on which those were based. I will also refrain from commenting on what David Lynch did or didn’t do better with his 1984 adaptation – I’ve seen that movie multiple times, but it has been years, and my memories of it are sketchy to the extent I can only say two things about it: I liked it, but the movie probably won’t make much sense to somebody that hasn’t read the book.

I’ll simply try to give an honest appraisal of how I experienced the new film, based on just one viewing. I have no intention of writing a lengthy analysis, nor add to the Twitter bloodsport on Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Keynes or the White Savior Myth.

So, is the movie any good? Does it do the book justice? The short answer is a double yes, loud and clear. The longer answer needs a bit more words. No spoilers, I promise.

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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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FIASCO – Stanisław Lem (1986)

Fiasco Lem John Alfred DornIn two weeks, on the 12th of September 2021, Stanisław Lem was born 100 years ago. That, coupled with the writer’s continuing popularity, made the Polish parliament declare 2021 officially to be the Year of Stanisław Lem, with festivities in Kraków and some new publications.

No better time for me to review Lem’s final novel, Fiasco. Lem stopped writing novels afterwards, but continued to publish non-fiction, mainly in the form of essays, until he died in 2006.

Fiasco has a curious publication history: the book was commissioned by a German publisher, and first published in a German translation in 1986. It was published in Polish some time later, and translated into English by Michael Kandel in 1987. Kandel translated 9 other Lem titles, including His Master’s Voice and The Cyberiad, and as far as I can tell his work is looked upon quite favorably, contrary to Kilmartin & Cox’s translation of Solaris.

I’ve read Solaris last year, and liked it a lot. Based on an overview of Polish native Ola G’s favorite Lem novels, and generally glowing reviews, I decided to read this one as my next Lem. Normally Ola’s recommendations do work out, but I hate to report I found Fiasco a terrible, terrible read.

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HERETICS OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1984)

This is the 5th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 11,600 words, the longest in the series so far. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor 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 tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Heretics of Dune (Schoenherr)A view that’s pretty pervasive is that the first three books are the best, and that Herbert kinda lost it afterwards. I don’t buy into this narrative. While I enjoyed Messiah, I also thought it was a dumbed down version of what Herbert did with Dune itself. Children had a great story, but also felt a bit convoluted and unclear. The overarching plot in the first two sequels is straightforward however, with a time frame that’s united, and characters that easily tie into the first book. As such it is fairly easy to grasp. It is only with the unplanned fourth book, God Emperor, that Herbert truly takes another canvas and paints something new, 3500 years after the original trilogy, and in the process he puffs up the attempts at philosophy. I think that book fails as philosophy, but at the same time it is a testament to an outrageous imagination. It’s understandable that readers who read Dune mainly for the action and sensawunda got bogged down in God Emperor, and cut their losses. But it’s also shortsighted, as Herbert picked up the pace again with Heretics.

Word has it Herbert planned another trilogy to finish the entire series after the pivotal God Emperor, and indeed, the story of Heretics of Dune is immediately continued in Chapterhouse: Dune. Frank Herbert died in 1986, but it’s not that hard to imagine he had indeed one final volume outlined – something his son Brian and Kevin Anderson tried to cash in with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. And cash there was, as Herbert “received what was said to be the biggest contract ever for a science fiction novel” for Heretics of Dune. It came out in March 1984, right after his wife Beverly died of lung cancer on February 7th. She had been battling the disease for 10 years.

Now that I’ve reread it, I feel that Heretics resembles Dune most of all the sequels. It’s not dumbed down nor convoluted, it’s fairly clear, and it again has the right mixture of imagination, action and political scheming. But while Dune for me was a straight 10 that even got better when I reread it, Heretics doesn’t even come close, even though it is the best of the sequels I’ve reread yet.

In what follows, I’ll first dissect some of the novel’s problems. At the end of that section is my overall appraisal of Heretics, and an examination of certain parallels qua plot & personnel with the first Dune, so this first part of the analysis doubles as a review of sorts. As the dissection will deal with the pulpy plot, I will have to spoil some of it.

Afterwards, I’ll examine some of the book’s core concepts. As Heretics puts the Bene Gesserit front and center, I will try to gauge their motives first, however murky they are. Also heresy, variation & love get a section, and the final focus will be a major shift in the series, as this time, 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, in the sense that they might even be incompatible. This is no fault per se: about 20 years have passed between writing Dune and Heretics, and it would be odd for a writer to still hold the exact same beliefs after two decades. As change was such an important concept of the series so far, it is also fitting.

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A SCANNER DARKLY – Philip K. Dick (1977)

A Scanner Darkly (Pepper)A Scanner Darkly isn’t really science fiction: PKD didn’t want to publish a mainstream literary novel as his previous attempts had been failures. The publisher suggested Dick to put in a few bits of strange technology (the scramble suit) and set its timeline in 1994, so that it could be marketed as science fiction.

The book is a semi-autobiographical story based on Dick’s own struggles with drugs in the early 70ies. In this troubled period, he took amphetamines full time, and stopped writing all together. He talked about it in a 1977 interview with Uwe Anton and Werner Fuchs:

“But on the drug thing, what happened was that after my wife Nancy left me in 1970, I was in a state of complete desolation and despair, and suicidally depressed because I really loved her. She took my little girl with her, who I really loved, and I didn’t see my little girl for – I saw her only once in a whole year, just for a few minutes. I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs. But that was for a period of just about a year. And then I just took amphetamines. I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends.”

The interview also specifically talks about A Scanner Darkly:

“I saw things that if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I simply wouldn’t have believed them. (…) Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw. I mean I saw even worse things than I put in A Scanner Darkly. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn’t complete a sentence, they really couldn’t state a sentence. And this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and I just saw, you know, it was like a vision of Hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime, and I was just…I’m just…it’s just…well, I was in love with a girl who was an addict and I didn’t know she was an addict and it was just pathetic. So I wrote A Scanner Darkly.
But, I did take amphetamines for years in order to be able to – I was able to produce 68 final pages of copy a day. But I write very slowly now and I take my time, because I don’t have any economic pressures. I was supporting, at one time, four children and a wife with very expensive tastes. Like she bought a Jaguar and so forth. I just had to write and that is the only way I could do it. And, you know, I’d like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I’m not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, turn out that volume of writing. So I can’t really say that for me amphetamines were a total, negative thing.”

Remarkably, A Scanner Darkly is a book on drugs, yet it wasn’t written under influence.

“Ah, well, my writing falls into two degrees, the writing done under the influence of drugs and the writing I’ve done when I’m not under the influence of drugs. But when I’m not under the influence of drugs I write about drugs. I took amphetamines for years in order to get energy to write. I had to write so much in order to make a living because our pay rates were so low. In five years I wrote sixteen novels, which is incredible. (…) But as soon as I began to earn enough money so that I didn’t have to write so many books, I stopped taking amphetamines. So now I don’t take anything like that. And I never wrote anything under the influence of psychedelics. For instance, Palmer Eldritch I wrote without ever having even seen psychedelic drugs.”

That’s it for the background – what about the novel itself?

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INCANDESCENCE – Greg Egan (2008)

Incandescence egan“All I learnt in the void was that our best guess so far is certainly wrong.”

While not totally unfamiliar with Greg Egan – I’ve read the brilliant Schild’s Ladder, and his early Quarantine – I did start Incandescence with the wrong expectations.

The blurb of the British 2009 Gollancz paperback promises something akin to space opera:

A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the Amalgam, a vast, cooperative meta-civilisation, and the Aloof, the silent occupiers of the galactic core. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but travellers intrepid enough can take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy’s central bulge.

Rakesh has waited all his life for adventure to come calling. When he meets a traveller who claims she was woken by the Aloof mid-journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to hunt down the uncharted world from which the meteor came, deep in the Aloof’s territory. 

Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a translucent world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. They live on the margins of a rigidly organised society, seeking to decipher the subtle clues that might reveal the true nature of the Splinter. In fact, their world is in danger of extinction, and as the evidence accumulates, Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

As Rakesh gradually uncovers the history of the lost DNA world, his search leads him to startling revelations about the Splinter – and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.”

I’ve quoted it in full, because it is striking because of two things: Egan’s own rigorous ethics concerning book jackets (see my review of Schild’s Ladder for the full anecdote), and his scathing reply to a review of Incandescence by Adam Roberts in Strange Horizons. Let me try to explain, and provide my own review of sorts by doing so.

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