great SF books

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Re: great SF books

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GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE - Frank Herbert (1981)

This is the 4th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books, and it became yet another lengthy text of about 8,720 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children 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 deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with 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.

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.

Before I’ll zoom in on Leto’s conceptual character, and questions about prescience, the nature of the Golden Path and the question whether the world portrayed in this book is mystic or mechanical, I’ll try to write a proper review of sorts. If you’re also interested in the more philosophical matters, or in the various inconsistencies introduced in this novel, read on afterwards.

How to assess God Emperor of Dune in the series? In my recollection I thought Dune was by far superior to the 2nd and the 3rd book, but when I finished the series, I thought book 5 and 6 were the best. God Emperor is the only book I don’t have specific memories about anymore.

So far, my rereads have more or less confirmed my feelings: Messiah is dumbed down to the point it became bothersome – even though the emotions saved it in the end; the intrigues and Alia’s character make Children an above average read, even though conceptually it is a bit of a mess, and Herbert didn’t achieve the same purity of message as he did with Dune itself.

Similarly, after rereading God Emperor, I simply don’t have very outspoken feelings about it. It was an okay read, and by any standards Leto is a remarkable character – maybe the strangest character I have ever encountered in fiction. That by itself is an achievement.

The novel is often portrayed as heavy on philosophy, and I can understand what people mean by that, but I’d rather say it is sprinkled with tidbits that make you think, instead of calling this a philosophical book. Often these passages are mildly intellectually stimulating, but at the same time, taken at face value, generally taken the form of sweeping generalizations about humanity. Because they often lack nuance they more than once made me shrug – Herbert’s attempt at Nietzschean aphorisms do succeed once in a while, but they don’t fully compensate for the main structural weakness of this book.

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Re: great SF books

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THE HAIR-CARPET WEAVERS - Andreas Eschbach (1995, translated 2005)

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While not fully perfect, the book is a gem that combines Le Guinish calm, mythical storytelling as in Earthsea, with a space opera plot that nods at Herbert and has the outrageous imagination of Iain M. Banks. I’d say this would appeal to both science fiction and fantasy readers, and the beginning of the book also reminded me a bit of Piranesi, another gem that was still fresh in my mind.

It also features a formal narrative approach I have rarely encountered, and definitely not as honed to perfection as it is here.

The Hair-Carpet Weavers starts with the story of Ostvan, a weaver whose sole occupation it is to weave a carpet using the hairs of his three wives, who each have a different hair-color. The weaving of the carpet is an intricate job, and it takes a lifetime to complete one carpet. The next chapter features a different viewpoint, focusing on a trader in hair-carpets. Each subsequent chapter has a different point-of-view, and while each chapter could be considered as a short story, they all are tied together closely – both in theme as in time. Eschbach manages to slowly unfold the mystery of the hair-carpet weavers, and the story zooms out as it evolves, but never losing touch with the people that populate it.

The different viewpoints – they are always different, not a single one is repeated – might hinder character development, but this is not really an issue, as each chapter has its own emotional conclusion, and the bigger story does develop – as does the society it is set in. I cannot stress the mastery Eschbach shows to pull something like this off, all in a fairly short novel for today’s standards. That narrative & emotional control is much more important than the fun, but ultimately superficial gimmick – a story about weavers that is woven out of different narrative threads itself.

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TAU ZERO - Poul Anderson (1970)

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Ultimately, I can handle bad science or outdated sex stuff or weak characterization – especially in older SF. The main problem I had with this book was “Carl Reymont, a macho alpha male who beats people into line for their own good”, as a reviewer on Goodreads wrote. It is the entire ideological setup of the novel that bothered me most. Anderson writes about a character that knows best, and assumes the 50 scientists that people the ship could not function as a healthy group without a Machiavellian hero/leader/brute. It’s the kind of thinking that results in justifying violent dictatorship via elitist conceptions about the masses. Paternalistic bullshit. Yuck.

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Re: great SF books

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Seems like I forgot to update here. Quite a few new reviews since my last post...

NOVA SWING - M. John Harrison (2006)

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This was another successful Harrison for me – and like his latest The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, one that I will probably reread in the coming decade, just as I will reread Light. Now that I think of it, I guess I’ll enjoy Light even more now that I have a better grip on what Harrison tries to do with his books. I might even read Swing‘s last 50 pages again tonight – expect no update here however, it will be a private affair. Nova Swing is recommended, 4.5 stars – caveats below. I’ll read the final Kefahuchi book, Empty Space, sooner than later.

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AN INFINITE SUMMER - Christopher Priest (1979)

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Love, time travel, nerve agents and war are superficial similarities to some or even all of these stories, but the connections run much deeper: they deal with observing others and oneself, memories & images of each other, and how people change over time – because of observations & because of context. It must also be stressed these stories are human first, all else secondary: the war is just a setting, the sparse science fictional ideas mainly just a backdrop too.

I liked each and every story – not that I’d give every story 4 or 5 stars – but as a whole An Infinite Summer indeed is more than the sum of its parts.

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THE DROWNED WORLD - J.G. Ballard (1962)

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At times, I read up on books while reading them, and this time my explorations of other reviews significantly colored my reading, in particular the review of BlackOxford on Goodreads.

In that review, BlackOxford develops a mostly symbolic reading of the text that accuses Ballard of racism. The arguments are interesting, but the reading might be reductive. On the other hand, Ballard seems to encourage this interpretative method of searching for latent symbolism.

Before I will add my two cents to the debate – and I’ll keep it short – let me do the non-political part of the review.

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THE GOLD COAST - Kim Stanley Robinson (1988)

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Just as The Wild Shore – the first part of a loosely connected triptych, each of which can be easily read as a standalone – The Gold Coast is a book about characters & communities. It made me tear up once, and the central story hinges on the dynamics between a father and a son, and between that father and his cooperate boss.

The California trilogy might be KSR’s most autobiographical work – at least the setting is, as he moved to Orange County when he was 2. Stan was 34 when he wrote it, and it is very much a book about saying goodbye to late adolescence – the extended period of drugs, booze and parties, being twentysomething before settling down.

I’m not sure how much of an epicure KSR is or was, but Jim McPherson, the main character, is an idealist – something he shares with his inventor. McPherson teaches languages for a living, and KSR taught freshman composition. McPherson is also a struggling writer, writing poetry and history, trying to come to grips with postmodernism, something I’m sure Robinson had to do as well under the auspices of his PhD mentor Frederic Jameson – a giant of pomo literary criticism.

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Re: great SF books

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Aside the ones listed in the post above, I've also written 5500 words on The Book of the New Sun, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN - Gene Wolfe (1980-1983)

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I’ve written a bit about a part of Wolfe’s politics in my review of The Knight, and I don’t want to spend too much time on that subject in TBotNS here, mainly because there is much more to agree to than to disagree with – we are on the same page about the Miracle that is Reality, and I don’t think it is always productive to zoom in on certain ideological differences. Humans are a social species, and at the end of the day we better try and get along, even with people that have different opinions.

Finally, there’s the obvious stuff: this book is brimming with imagination, written in a singular prose, the pacing is great, the construction more than clever, the setting cinematic, awesome, brilliant. The horror and the humor and the wisdom and the surprises and the awe just keep coming, page after page after page.

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Re: great SF books

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ROADSIDE PICNIC - Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (1972)

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Anyhow, I agree with Lem that the final chapter – while I sympathize with its ultimate message, “HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!” – isn’t the most successful of the book. It turns something that was fairly consistent in its harshness in a kind of dreamlike carnival of the deranged. In vogue in 60ies and 70ies literature, sure, but also a bit of an Achilles heel, as I feel the mystery and absurdity of life isn’t best served with fairly straightforward mimesis of a mental meltdown in outré surroundings: it too easily turns into something cartoonish.

Is the weird truly the best form to portray the Wonder? Part of the answer to that is taste, obviously, but I think reality is strange enough as is, and it doesn’t need embellishments to drive that home. On the other hand, Redrick Schuhart’s mental fate isn’t unrealistic given what he had to endure in his fictional life, so Boris & Arkady Strugatsky get a pass for that ending, easily.

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Re: great SF books

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INCANDESCENCE- Greg Egan (2008)

“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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