Tag Archives: Science Fiction

STAND ON ZANZIBAR – John Brunner (1968)

Stand On ZanzibarJudith Merrill called Stand On Zanzibar “the first true SF novel”, and in his introduction to the 2011 edition Bruce Sterling calls parts “radically antinovelistic” and the book in general a “unique formal achievement”. Let me assure you, dear reader, such hyperbole statements are bollocks. I’ve written about some SF-readers’ real literature frustration before, and I won’t repeat all that here. It seems that some people still need to be told that what they are reading is really True Art, and really worth Their Time.

Sterling goes on to compare John Brunner’s first non-pulp novel to George Perec’s 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi in an attempt to make Brunner’s book more formally visionary than it actually is: it predates the English translation of that ‘real’ literature masterpiece by 20 years. While doing so, he almost casually brushes aside the formal comparisons to Dos Passos’ U.S.A., a trilogy from the 1930s that uses the same narrative techniques. Sterling claims Dos Passos doesn’t really count, as he was an “naturalistic” writer, and Brunner “antinaturalistic”. Content is not form in my book, so “unique formal achievement”? Yeah right. And in Dutch Louis Paul Boon already wrote an even more radical cut up book right after WW2.

Maybe it was unique in the context of SF. Brunner might have been the first speculative writer to put all these techniques together in one book: I’m not widely enough read in pre 1968 SF to verify this. But its partial techniques were tried & tested, in speculative fiction too. I’m guessing books that alternate the big storylines with smaller storylines or vignettes can be easily found. The habit of inserting made up texts from the future period somebody is writing about is not unheard of either: just look at this list of fictional books Frank Herbert quoted from in the Dune series. Asimov did the same in the early 50ies. And Tolkien had fictional song and verse too.

All this is not to shit on Stand On Zanzibar, as Stand On Zanzibar is a masterpiece.

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LAKE OF THE LONG SUN – Gene Wolfe (1994)

lake-of-the-long-sun

If Nightside The Long Sun was about the protagonist’s self discovery, this second book in the series is about Patera Silk slowly discovering the true nature of his world.

The 4 volumes of The Book Of The Long Sun are set on a multigenerational starship – a fact that Tor reveals on the back cover, but one that is only revealed to the reader in this second book. It’s understandable that Tor did so, as The Long Sun is extremely hard to market: it’s an odd book: a lot more accessible than Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book Of The New Sun, but less lush, and a lot less compelling – at first sight maybe even boring. Tor might have increased its sales, spaceships sell, but the spoiler doesn’t do the reader any service: it takes away part of the joy of discovery, and it sets wrong expectations. Multigenerational starship yes, but no space opera or high tech scifi of whatever ilk. Continue reading

LIGHT – M. John Harrison (2002)

41atffz3pxlDamn: hard review to write.

China Miéville has said the following about Micheal John Harrison: “That M. John Harrison is not a Nobel laureate proves the bankruptcy of the literary establishment. Austere, unflinching and desperately moving, he is one of the very great writers alive today. And yes, he writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.”

Light is the first of three connected books – The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. It won the Triptree award, and its sequel Nova Swing won the Clarke and the PKD. The trilogy is also known as the Empty Space trilogy – Empty Space being the title of the last book, published in 2012. All three books are quite different, and Light can easily be read as a standalone novel.

Do I agree with Mièville? I’m not sure, and besides, I’ve only read this one book. But after reading Light, I’ll finish the entire trilogy. The same goes for The Centauri Device – a stand-alone space opera title published in 1974. I also bought Viriconium – a fantasy series of novels and stories started in 1972 and finished in 1985. So I’ll get back to you in a couple of years on that Nobel prize. In the meantime, let me try to convey the atmosphere of Light. Continue reading

DYING INSIDE – Robert Silverberg (1972)

dying-insideOkay, first things first: Dying Inside is not really a scifi book. It’s a rather small story about David Selig, living in the second half of 20th century America. Selig can read minds – only he and one other guy he meets can do this – and his power is diminishing. That’s it. No speculative science, no future worlds, no space stuff, nothing, just one guy who inexplicably can read minds. That’s not a negative, it’s just something candidate readers should know.

Dying Inside easily fits in with earlier scifi, taking mental powers seriously – just like books as diverse as Foundation And Empire (1952), Childhood’s End (1953), The Demolished Man (1953), More Than Human (1953), The Santaroga Barrier (1968) or The Lathe Of Heaven (1971).

In a way, Dying Inside is the most pure of all those: Silverberg doesn’t give justifications for Selig’s powers, there’s no paranormal scientific framework, no Freudian veneer, no nothing. Selig’s powers are a coincidence. On the surface level, it’s just a character study of a speculative character losing his mutant mental power. On top of that, Selig doesn’t do anything spectacular with his powers. He doesn’t try to make money out of it, there’s no action, no mystery plot, no sleuthing. So, space opera fans should look elsewhere for their dose of entertainment.

All these caveats aside: I liked Dying Inside. Why? What’s a way to approach and appreciate this novel? I don’t care much for the approach of Michael Dirda – Washington Post book critic – who points to the easily recognized surface metaphor: yes, Dying Inside is about a character realizing he will die someday, “a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age”. I don’t feel Silverberg has particularly interesting or profound things to say about that shock. So, another approach maybe? Continue reading

MEMORY OF WATER – Emmi Itäranta (2012, transl. 2014)

memory-of-waterA few years ago I visited a specialized tea place in Barcelona, Spain. A quiet space, with dozens and dozens of fresh, handpicked, rare teas to choose from – each tea requiring its own precise water temperature & seeping duration. I don’t know anything about tea, and I asked for the “most complex” tea they had – thinking tasting tea was like tasting wine or whiskey. The woman serving me looked at me in surprise, at first not even understanding my question. It turned out tea is not about complexity at all. Those reviewers that complain about this book being boring, about having a plot in which nothing happens, similarly miss the point.

Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel is a quiet dystopian novel, set in a future where climate change has happened, fresh water is scarce and China has annexed Scandinavia. The 266 page book’s protagonist is Nario Kaitio, 17, and the daughter and apprentice of a tea master in a rural Scandinavian village, way up north. At the beginning of the novel, her father lets her in on a secret: he guards a hidden spring that has been her family’s responsibility for generations. This is not without danger: all water belongs to the military, and water crimes are punishable by death.


Fiction about futures with water shortage isn’t particularly rare. Itäranta does not break new ground, but nevertheless has managed to write a book with a voice of her own. Expect no action packed book like The Water Knife, nor something like the Fremen with a fully worked out water mythology as in Dune.

What you do get is Continue reading

2016 FAVORITES

First up: I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. Thank you. My best wishes for the new year!

I’ve read 54 titles in 2016, and reviewed 52. Below are the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order. Click on the covers for the review. After the books, music.

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CENTRAL STATION – Lavie Tidhar (2016)

central-stationIt strikes me as odd that people still are into this whole Literature vs. non-Literature distinction, especially people who review science fiction. Yet publishers like Tachyon make themselves complicit to this continuing confusion when they slap stuff like “magnificently blends literary and speculative elements … Readers of all persuasions will be entranced” on the back cover of their books.

It’s understandable Tachyon does so: it adds cultural credits and a veneer of Serious Art to Lavie Tidhar’s newest book. They hope it will help sell more copies of Central Station, also outside the speculative crowd. I think they are mistaken. More on that later.

First, a quick paragraph on my literary views. I don’t think a clear division between literature and non-literature can be upheld. What one can do is list criteria to judge how “good” a book is. People who have spent a couple of years at a university studying literature tend to like stuff like complexity, “depth” and originality. So yes, one could argue for a division between interesting books and superficial books. Whether a book is speculative or not isn’t a factor in that dichotomy. Of course, science fiction has a history in pulp magazines. True. But – newsflash: most books that people dub “literature” are bland and uninteresting too. Pulp is everywhere, not only in the speculative sphere. It’s Sturgeon’s law!

So, back to Central Station. Continue reading