Tag Archives: Science Fiction

THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT – Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley RobinsonOne has to admire Kim Stanley Robinson for the breadth of his work. He has published 19 novels, 2 works of non-fiction, 8 short story collections and 4 novellas. If you just look at the novels, you see a wide variety of angles. Still, his topics remain steadfast: the evolutionary & ecological nature of humans, what human societies could amount to  – progressive, utopian thinking – and how science and technology ties into that.

The Years of Rice and Salt is no dystopian near-future story, nor an account of prehistorical homo sapiens, nor a clifi thriller, nor an hard SF tale of terraforming or interstellar travel. It’s what’s called an alternative history.

As a starting point Robinson lets the black death wipe out 99% of the European population, instead of – current best estimate – 65%. What follows is, in 652 pages and 10 chapters, a history of seven centuries “on an alternate Earth in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions. (…) the New World is discovered by the Chinese Navy, and the Renaissance is played out as a conflict between a Middle Eastern Islam and Chinese Buddhism.” (Kirkus)

Robinson basically wrote 10 novellas that are entangled because they each figure the same three characters, each time reincarnated – as “orphaned Indian girl, Sufi mystic, African eunuch, Sultan’s wife, Chinese admiral, dourly brilliant alchemist, feminist poet, village midwife, glassblower, theologian, etc.”

The Kirkus review is on point in that it names the book at times a bit “ponderous” and “overlong”, and also Laura Miller expresses some of that sentiment in her 2002 review for Salon. But it would be foolish to discard the book just because of that: The Years of Rice and Salt is a tour-de-force.

Continue reading

Advertisement

EMPTY SPACE: A HAUNTING – M. John Harrison (2012)

Empty Space M John HarrisonI liked everything I’ve read by Harrison so far: Light, Nova Swing, the 2017 short story collection You Should Come With Me Now, and his latest 2020 novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. I liked it a lot. And I plan to read a whole lot more of Harrison too.

But I stopped reading Empty Space at 60% in. Not that it doesn’t have merit. The novel got glowing reviews on Speculiction and A Sky of Books and Movies. Paul Kincaid has called the entire trilogy “the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century” in the LA Review of Books. I can see why, but no – more on that later. On a sentence level, Harrison is a master, a poet. On a scene level, he manages to evoke much – technically he’s brilliant. The same goes for the emotional level: he is an expert in painting characters with only a wee bit of language.

But besides all that, I have come to realize the particular game Harrison plays in this particular novel simply does not interest me. For me, there was not enough story, and too much meta-puzzle.

Maybe I’ve overdosed on postmodern deconstruction at university? Then again, that was over 20 years ago. And I’m still interested in these matters. I’m still interested in the politics & epistemics & metaphysics & biology of representation and language. I agree with Harrison that we should be aware of the artificiality of our fictional entertainment. But I’m not sure if Empty Space works as a political-poetic manifesto.

I will look into some of these matters in the remainder of this text – not so much a traditional review, but an essay using interviews and reviews to ponder this particular branch of literature & art.

Continue reading

PERHAPS THE STARS – Ada Palmer (2021)

Perhaps The Stars Ada Palmer UK hardcoverThere are benefits to blogging: being part of a conversation, just as Ada Palmer with her writing wants to be part of the conversation. When I was on the brink of finishing Perhaps The Stars, Agnus Burke – from the excellent Utopia in the Works, a blog focused on rereading Kim Stanley Robinson – commented on my review of The Will to Battle, the previous book in Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. That comment helped me tremendously in pinpointing exactly what I wanted to say in this final review.

Before I get to that, a short recap for those of you who haven’t read the previous reviews. Perhaps the Stars is the fourth and final book of Terra Ignota, a series that started with Too Like the Lightening, a book that blew me away and that I rank among the best books I’ve read – in my review I try to explain why.

Book 2 and 3 were excellent as well, but not fully on the level of Palmer’s debut. And so I wrote lengthy analyses, trying to spell out my feelings. 8,600 words on Seven Surrenders, most notably on the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D. and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building. And 6,400 words on The Will to Battle, on the epistemic nature of the text & its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world, and about J.E.D.D.’s problematic motivation for his involvement in the coming war – linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem.

These reviews are a testimony of an ongoing reading process, and I wouldn’t have written certain parts with what I know in hindsight. I don’t think that’s a problem, as they serve as a mapping of sorts to the problems Palmer presents her readers – she has been vocal about one of her goals: getting people to think and engage with these books. So I won’t alter these reviews retroactively, that would defy their pondering, searching nature – except that I will add one remark to my review of Seven Surrenders, out of intellectual fairness.

Now that I’ve finished the full series, this final review – 5,500 words – will also serve as my thoughts on the full series, and for those thoughts I’ll start with Burke’s comment. I’ll also discuss some other stuff that wasn’t fully to my taste this time, and I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on the trolley problem itself & on a few of the series’ gender aspects.

In short, I think Palmer did an amazing job – an insane amount of work – crafting her narrative construction, providing tons of great ideas and sets and characters and twists and genuine moments of awe – but, and this may seem paradoxical for a novel full of really insightful stuff, I think the main philosophical foundation of the four Terra Ignota books is uninteresting and unproductive. How’s that for a cliffhanger?

Continue reading

THE WILL TO BATTLE – Ada Palmer (2017)

The Will To Battle Ada Palmer hardcoverAda Palmer’s Terra Ignota tetralogy has me gripped. I read the first two in a month at the beginning of this year and took a bit of a pause before I started this third book: I needed a bit of air – these books are dense.

To recap: I absolutely loved Too Like the Lightning – I don’t think I’ve read a better debut ever. It’s not for everybody, but do yourself a favor: read my review to check out if it could be something for you. I also liked Seven Surrenders a lot – even though I had some remarks about what Palmer tried to do philosophically: about the metaphysics of the book, its ethics & its apparent gender essentialism. I wrote a 8,600 word analysis of all that and more, if you’re interested in such a thing.

This review won’t be as long, but still a hefty 6,400 words. The conceptual questions I voiced in my analysis of Seven Surrenders are not resolved in The Will to Battle, and there isn’t that much new information on these matters to analyze. Still, there’s enough to build upon what I wrote.

In my analysis, I will limit myself to two things. First a further discussion of the epistemic nature of the text and its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world. I’ve also changed my opinion a bit on the science fantasy matter, mainly because of an essay Palmer wrote online.

The second thing I’ll look at more closely is J.E.D.D.’s motivation for his involvement in the coming war: it is linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem – things I wrote about in my text on 7S as well. J.E.D.D.’s motivations are problematic to say the least – not wholly out of character.

Before I’ll get to the analytic part, I’ll do a quick assessment of the novel without spoilers – that could be of interest to those that have read none or one or two of the first books.

Just to be clear: I liked The Will to Battle a lot, probably a bit more even than Seven Surrenders. It was a bit less exuberant, less cartoonish, and it dwelled less on the problematic sides of 7S.

Book 4, Perhaps the Stars, has 608 pages of small print and slim margins – quite a difference with the 350 pages of normal print in The Will to Battle. I tend to avoid door stoppers, but the fact that I’m very eager to read it nonetheless attests for Palmer’s narrative powers. I’ll read one or two short books as palet cleansers, but I hope to post a review/analysis of Perhaps the Stars before the end of August. Stay tuned.


GENERAL APPRAISAL – spoiler free

I think it’s safe to say The Will to Battle is a transitional book, getting us from the more or less finished story of the first half to the series’ finale: a big battle, as in so much traditional speculative series. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading