Tag Archives: short fiction

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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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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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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VERGEET NIET WAT DE ZEVENSLAPER ZEI – J.M.H. Berckmans (1989)

A post in Dutch, about Antwerp author Jean-Marie Berckmans, who died in 2008 – after a lifelong struggle with manic-depression, anxiety and addiction. I’m slowly working my way through his oeuvre.

This review is about his 2nd debut – he disappeared for years from the literary stage after his 1977 debut. The title is a Dutch translation of “Remember what the dormouse said”.

Next post will be in English again – on the excellent Perihelion Summer, a 2019 title by Hard SF giant Greg Egan.


Voor een introductie in J.M.H. Berckmans: zie de linkjes onderaan.

De zevenslaper is een relmuis: relmuizen slapen 7 maanden per jaar. Het is meer bepaald de relmuis uit het nummer White Rabbit van Jefferson Airplane – waarin Grace Slick er ons op het einde aan herinnert dat die muis “feed your head” zei. Jean-Marie Berckmans was verslingerd aan muziek, maar in zijn 2e debuut uit 1989 is het veelal toch wat minder swingend & free dan in zijn latere werk.

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AN INFINITE SUMMER – Christopher Priest (1979)

An Infinite Summer (first edition)An Infinite Summer‘s first cover, pictured here, is kind of fitting to this short story collection. The other covers, at the end of this review, don’t really do it justice. Christopher Priest has a sophistication to his writing that’s more akin to regular literature than scifi of the pulpy kind.

My first encounter with Priest was Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie adaptation of The Prestige. I also read 1974’s Inverted World, but that was at the onset of my explorations of SF, and while I liked the novel, I expected the wrong things of it, and I ended up writing a short review that was ultimately negative because of an ending that was ludicrous from a realistic point of view. In other words: I applied Hard SF standards to a novel that was at heart more poetic than scientific.

I’ve always felt that I should give Priest another chance, and when I found An Infinite Summer a few weeks ago in a second hand store, I knew it was going to be my next read. 2011’s The Islanders has been on my TBR for a few months too, but I thought this collection would be a better introduction to the world of the Dream Archipelago – because it was published way earlier, and because I liked the idea of short stories as an introduction to what seems like a fragmented concept to begin with.

Not that all of the 5 stories/novellas in this book are considered Dream Archipelago material: Whores, The Negation and The Watched are – and they are also collected in the 1999 The Dream Archipelago collection. Palely Loitering isn’t a DA story, and while the title story An Infinite Summer is considered to be one by some, it doesn’t mention the DA in the story itself, it’s not part of the later collection, and Priest himself doesn’t frame it as such in the introduction to this volume either – while he explicitly does so for the three I mentioned.

Both “Whores” and “The Watched” are from a loosely linked cycle of stories I think of as “the Dream Archipelago” (“The Negation” also fits into the series, although in a slightly different way.) The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. (…) There is very little in common between each one, except perhaps the words “Dream Archipelago” themselves.

I’ll first give a few general remarks about the collection, and afterwards zoom in and say a few words on each story.

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EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

ExhalationI was conflicted about Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s much lauded first collection. There’s something about this guy: he can write – but are these really, truly stories?

So at first I decided to skip Exhalation: Stories, his second collection, published in 2019. But then I read a glowing review on Speculiction that dubbed the title story “one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written”. It also won three major awards: the Hugo, Locus and BSFA. As it is available for free on Lightspeed Magazine’s site, I decided to read just that.

It turned out to be a typical Chiang story: exquisitely crafted, good prose, convincing atmosphere, smart ideas. But sadly, for my taste, it’s also a bit too didactic, for two reasons.

It tries to convey a message – the clichéd ‘be thankful for the wonder of existence’, but more importantly, because it follows the typical Chiang template: he read some interesting stuff, and tries to mold his newfound wisdom into a story. Continue reading

BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Octavia E. Butler (1995)

Bloodchild and other stories

Lists are fun. Hence me browsing the fantastic Classics of Science Fiction, an aggregated ranking site by James W. Harris – who blogs about sci fi and getting older over at Auxiliary Memory. I saw that Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was ranked as the most cited (i.e. best) science fiction short story. For what it’s worth, it also won a Hugo, Locus, Nebula & SF Chronicle award. As I hadn’t read anything yet by Octavia Butler, I thought Bloodchild would be a good place to start. I found a cheap second hand copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories easily, and here we are.

There’s a couple of editions of the collection. The copy I got was published in 1995, and that has 5 stories, plus 2 essays. From 2005 onward however, it has been printed with two more stories – Amnesty and The Book Of Martha, both written in 2003. I did some googling and I found those easily, here and here – I’ll review them too. The fact that I chose to look online for the additional material is telling: this is not a bad collection – and that from an author who opens the preface to her collection with this line: “The truth is, I hate short story writing.”

It’s somewhat of a behind the scenes publication: each story is followed by an afterword of about 2 pages, in which Butler talks a bit about what she wanted to do with the story or how it came about. They are generally interesting, nothing spectacular, but nice enough. There’s also 2 short essays on writing, and I’ll say a few words about those later.

I’ll just do a quick write up of each story and a wee bit of concluding thoughts. This’ll be a fairly short review for a short book: 145 pages in my edition. Here we go:

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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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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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ACADIE – Dave Hutchinson (2017)

Acadie

Dave Hutchinson is best know for his Fractured Europe sequence – an excellent, gritty near future mixture of spy, noir and even fantasy. So far, I’ve only read the first two books, both of which ended up in my favorite lists of what I read that year. I thought a break from that series before I tackle Europe in Winter might shed some more light on Hutchinson as an author. And while this 103-page novella is not as successful or original as both Europes I’ve read, it’s still a good, entertaining read.

For all the talk about Fractured Europe, Hutchinson’s short story collections seem to have been forgotten in the mists of time: he published 4 of those as David Hutchinson between 1978 and 1982. When he returned to fiction that was largely unacknowledged too. His 2001 full length debut The Villages has a mere 7 Goodreads ratings. The Push, a 2009 Hard SF novella, was released in only 350 copies. It took another 5 years before Europe at Autumn really got things going. Today Acadie is even published by powerhouse Tor, who seem to have picked up on Hutchinson’s critical acclaim.

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YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME NOW – M. John Harrison (2017)

You Should Come With Me NowYou Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.

Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.

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TAXI NAAR DE BOERHAAVESTRAAT – J.M.H. Berckmans (1995)

Taxi naar de BoerhaavestraatIk lees al jaren amper nog Nederlandstalige literatuur, vaak helemaal niks. Vorig jaar alleen Jagers In De Sneeuw, de fantastische debuutbundel van Eric Spinoy, uit 1986. Die had ik op een rommelmarkt in de Markgravelei in Antwerpen gevonden. Hetzelfde kraampje had ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat van JMH Berckmans. Het werk van Berckmans is moeilijk te vinden – alleen zijn laatste boek Ge Kunt Geen Twintig Zijn Op Suikerheuvel (2006) is nog relatief vlot verkrijgbaar, en 4 Laatste Verhalen – in 2009 postuum uitgegeven. Een vijftal andere titels zijn tegenwoordig wel verkrijgbaar als e-book, zelfs op bol.com: vooruitgang.

De Boerhaavestraat ligt in de Seefhoek, en op nummer 20 is er De Wilg, een sociaal centrum van het Antwerpse OCMW. De Wilg begeleidt onder andere mensen met een psychiatrische problematiek die elders geen opname kunnen betalen. Het is genoegzaam geweten dat Berckmans in 1977, 24, zelfmoord heeft proberen te plegen. Berckmans had na de eerste kandidatuur Germaanse – grote onderscheiding trouwens – een zware depressie gekregen, gevolgd door een manisch avontuur als succesvol schoenenverkoper in Italië, om dan terecht te komen in wat heel zijn leven lang een sukkelstraat zou blijven. Taxi Naar… is een bundel uit 1995 met 9 stukken, zo’n 10 tot 30 bladzijden lang.

Ik heb eens een avond en een nacht met Jean-Marie Henri Berckmans doorgebracht, op 18 november 2006, in jeugdhuis Zigzag in Merksplas, waar we een literaire avond hadden georganiseerd. Ik had er gedichten voorgelezen uit een ongepubliceerde bundel, en Berckmans zou er ook voorlezen. Daar is weinig van gekomen, zoals je hier al kon lezen. Geen twee jaar later was hij dood, gestorven omdat hij weinig at en enkel dronk.

JMH Berckmans

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GYPSY – Plus… – Carter Scholz (2015)

GypsyKim Stanley Robinson fans beware: Carter Scholz is a buddy of his, they go hiking in the Sierras together. It shows, both on the cover of this little gem, and in the content itself.

Gypsy Plus… is a 146 page booklet in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. Its main attraction is the novella Gypsy (97 pages), plus 2 shorter stories (The Nine Billion Names Of God, 10 pages, from 1984 – not the same as the Clarke title by the way, and Bad Pennies, 8 pp., 2009), a political essay on contemporary US politics (The United States Of Impunity, 14 pp.) and a 12-page interview with the author.

Gypsy is hard SF about a team of 21st century scientists who crowd-source a secret starship and abandon a doomed Earth for the Alpha Centauri system. Scholz says an interesting thing in the interview:

I’ve never seen an SF story take full stock on how hard, maybe impossible interstellar travel is going to be. Gypsy is my attempt to do it “with the net up” as the “hard SF” writers say. Even in the most rigorous hard SF, you always reach the hand-wave moment where the net drops to permit some bit of story development. I wanted to play it straight and let the story come out of the constraints of the physics. Continue reading

BURNING CHROME and other stories – William Gibson (1986)

burning-chromeOn the final page of the final story – the title story – Gibson envisions a possible future for prostitution.

The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways.

It struck me how much reading books satisfies the same urge: wanting to be alone and needing someone at the same time.

Burning Chrome‘s 10 stories are populated by Gibson’s usual kind of characters, and deal with Gibson’s usual themes – although I probably shouldn’t make a sweeping statement like that, as I’ve only read two Gibson novels so far: Neuromancer & Virtual Light. Those two reading experiences weren’t fully successful, but reading this collection was, 100%.

The stories were published between 1977 and 1986, and are rather short: about 15 pages each, and not one of them above 30 pages. They fly by like a breeze, snappy, in prose that’s top notch. Here’s Gibson – in the voice of a photographer – on some building:

I shot one in San Jose an hour before the bulldozers arrived and drove right through the structural truth of plaster and lathing and cheap concrete.

That sentence alone should convince you.

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THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU – stories by Susanna Clarke (2006)

the-ladies-of-grace-adieuSusanna Clarke’s much lauded magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite speculative books. So I didn’t hesitate to order The Ladies Of Grace Adieu And Other Stories after reading an excellent review on the Calmgrove blog.

It features 8 stories, plus a fictional introduction by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”. That introduction is only 3 pages and set my expectations even higher, as Clarke’s familiar ‘English’ narrative voice shone through instantly, promising more of the treat Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was. All the stories in this 235-page collection deal with Faerie in one way or the other, and were illustrated by WFA winning artist Charles Vess. A few are also explicitly linked with J.S. & Mr. N.

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