great SF books

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Re: great SF books

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I've posted 2 reviews since my last post, one new fantasy, and one lengthy analysis of classic SF title.

The first is from 2015, THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson. The review is here.

Overall disappointing, I even DNF.


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LAST AND FIRST MEN --- Olaf Stapledon (1930)

Reviewing fiction as old as this is always hard: how to judge a book that was written for an audience that is generally dead already? In a way, this book is alien itself.

I’ll try to do justice to its historical relevance, and also say something about it as a contemporary reading experience.

This review is heavy on quotes that are often long. When I first started writing it, I typed in all the 21 quotes I considered using, and ended up with more than 1600 words already. I ditched a few, but quite a lot remain.

The final text has 3656 words. That’s about an essay of 10 pages, so if you don’t want to read an analysis of Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical ambitions just skip the first section. If you’re not interested in the importance of this book for SF as a genre, skip the second section too.

Last And First Men: A Story Of The Near And Far Future is not an easy book. It’s 247 pages of small print, in an English that is still readable, but doesn’t have a contemporary flow. The fact that Stapledon had a PhD in philosophy also shows: the conceptual content is pretty dense. A year after the publication of his first philosophical work, A Modern Theory Of Ethics: A Study Of The Relations Of Ethics And Psychology, he made his debut as a fiction writer with Last And First Men at age 44.

The book is set up as an historical account of the human race, and it describes the evolution from the 1930s onward, across two billion years, and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first. There are no main characters, and the book reads more as a collection of history lessons than as a regular fictional story.

I’ll discuss the conceptual & philosophical content first, then talk about its science fictional relevance, and end with some of the cons that colored my 2016 reading experience.


(...)

The full analysis is here.

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Re: great SF books

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I've posted 2 reviews since my last post, one new fantasy, and one review of the first ever book to win the Hugos, from 1953.


The first is the conclusion to an original & recommended trilogy, The Eternal Sky.

STELES OF THE SKY --- EIizabeth Bear (2014)

The review is here.



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THE DEMOLISHED MAN --- Alfred Bester (1953)

What to write about this first ever winner of the Hugo award? The main conclusion must be this: times have changed. The CIA had a secret program (‘Project MKULtra’) trying to gain insight into mind control during the 1950s and the early sixties. Arthur C. Clarke dabbled in the paranormal (see the few lines I quoted from the foreword to Childhood’s End – also published in 1953), Asimov had telepaths living in a second Foundation, and Frank Herbert wrote The Santaroga Barrier as late as 1968. It were trippy times, and the belief in the potential powers of the mind was hopeful and naive.

Is this book science fiction? Not because it’s set in 2301 AD, as that doesn’t matter for the story: it could have been 1981 AD just as well. Not because it features Venus or Ganymede as locations, as that doesn’t matter either, it could have been Hawaii and Malawi too. The fact that humans colonized the solar system is not explored one bit – the most comical moment of the book is when a character wonders if he’ll catch the “10 o’clock rocket” to someplace off-planet. Not because cars are called jumpers and can fly. And not because the judge is a computer, as that could have been any bureaucrat.


(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews are up, one of a 2016 SFF-collection, the other of Le Guin's 1974 classic anarchist tale.




THE PAPER MENAGERIE AND OTHER STORIES --- Ken Liu (2016)

Ken Liu is on quite a spree this year: in October Tor will publish his translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to The Three-Body trilogy, in November Saga will publish The Wall Of Storms, the sequel to Liu’s own The Grace Of Kings, and November will see the release of Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese SF stories & essays, all of which he translated.

March 2016 saw the publication of The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories. Yes, that’s a great title, and an even better cover! The 450 page collection features 15 short stories and novellas, almost all of them from around 2012. They have all been published elsewhere before, except one. The stories are short indeed: most are about 20 pages. Only four are significantly longer: 38, 55, 61 and 95 pages.

Liu is quite explicit about his philosophical framework and goals in the preface. The universe is accidental and senseless, and the stories in The Paper Menagerie have a clear objective: they are tools in a search for meaning and truth.

For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors – which is the logic of narratives in general – over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.

We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves – they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of truth.


A few of the stories are quite meta, almost all deal with aspects of cultural identity of some sort, and there’s a clear presence of Asian themes and settings. Liu writes both fantasy and science fiction, and as such it is a varied collection. Still, in all of these stories Liu manages to write with a fairly recognizable voice: most share a kind of magical realism feel. You won’t find epic high fantasy, nor epic space opera, or chilling hard SF, but instead will find a subtle, sometimes even poetic collection – not without blood and suffering though. Taken as a whole, I loved it.

I will refrain from giving a summary for each story, but try to use each of them to highlight some features of Liu’s writing.

(...)

The review full is here.



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THE DISPOSSESSED --- Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

The Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.

Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews, one of a 2016 Canadian SF hit novel; the other of a 2015 desert fantasy, first in a six book series...



SLEEPING GIANTS --- Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

Let’s just dive right in: this debut by Canadian author Sylvian Neuvel is extremely entertaining, but its plot is quite a mess. It has been compared to The Martian, and while it shares similarities, it is a different beast altogether. Sleeping Giants starts with the discovery of a giant robot hand, buried thousands of years ago, alien in origin. A high paced conspiracy SF thriller ensues, following the scientists and military personnel that try to uncover the hand’s secrets.

It shares lots of surface details with Andy Weir’s hit: it’s a debut, it was first self-published, it’s set more or less in our own timeframe, it has a kind of witty quality, the pacing is relentless, and – maybe most importantly – the movie rights sold instantly, a motion picture is on its way. As it reads like a blockbuster, that’s no surprise at all.

Blockbuster, warts and all: plot weaknesses are abundant.

(...)

While the science in The Martian has been debated, at least Weir tried to be consistent, and true to reality as best as he could. Neuvel doesn’t even try. I’m not saying this is as brainless as Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, not even close, just don’t expect meticulously researched scientific/military/political intrigue. A better comparison would be Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: stylish & entertaining, yet also involving professionals who should know better doing things they shouldn’t do.

(...)

The review full is here.



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TWELVE KINGS IN SHARAKHAI --- Bradley P. Beaulieu (2015)

I don’t really understand contemporary authors that latch their new world on to excisting stuff on Earth in an attempt to create a different world. Twelve Kings In Sharakhai is set in a desert city, including niqabs, turbans, face veils, crescent moons, henna tattoos, curved swords, the likes, yet all that just seems token exoticism. It’s not Earth, since the world has two moons and immortal kings, yet it is a lot like Earth, and I never really had the feeling I was reading a story about another world – a bit of a problem for secondary world fantasy.

A good early indication of said problem are spices: authors tend to show the otherness of their new world by piling on the abundance of tastes, smells and colors, preferably on crowded, buzzing markets. It has become such a cliché. And increasingly inefficient, since most of these species have become available in about any mainstream store where I live too. “The bright flavor of cardamom and caramelized onion and lemon zest” features on page 17. Cardamon really is the winner to indicate a Middle-Eastern vibe, and unsurprisingly the first tasty seed mentioned. A few pages further, “already the heavy breeze carried scents of rose and jasmine and sandalwood”. Beaulieu keeps on dropping these sets of three throughout the book: “a lush display of flowering herbs – valeria and veronica and Sweet Anna.” Enumerations like these are one of the hallmarks of supposedly “detailed, rich world building”.

As you might have guessed from the tone of the above, the first book of The Song Of The Shattered Sands series didn’t really do it for me. It’s not a bad book – it’s a lot better than Throne Of The Crescent Moon – but all things considered, it doesn’t get much more than a shrug of my shoulders. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, but I think the book would benefit from these three fixes:

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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4 new reviews, two SF books, and 2 that are fantasy.


ALTERED CARBON --- Richard K. Morgan (2002)

It’s hardly surprising Netflix has announced a 10-episode series based on this book. If done right, this “pure high-octane science fiction” mixed “with the classic noir private-eye tale” will lend itself pretty well to the 21st century TV audience.
Altered Carbon is Richard K. Morgan’s debut, and instantly got acclaim. It won the 2003 PKD award, and comparisons to Blade Runner and Neuromancer are found in reviews all over the net. More on that later.

It’s an entertaining read, and fairly easy at that. Don’t believe reviewers who speak of a complex plot: one has to pay attention, yes, but the story simply goes from point A to B: easily recognizable events take the protagonist by the hand throughout the murky world and the inevitable conclusion, and new clues pop up at regular intervals. Events as: being ambushed, being shoved into a limousine to see some mighty powerbroker, being confronted by a female cop followed by kissing, being tailed, being seduced by the wife of your client, being put into a fighting pit (bare knuckles to the death!), going to an arms dealer to get new toys, etc., etc. All in all, pretty pulpy stuff.

That’s not to say the novel doesn’t have merit: (...)

(...)

It shouts more “lack of imagination” than anything else, and more crucially, in its grotesqueness does disservice to the critique of capitalism that underlies this book too. Even more crucially, it does disservice to the possibility of enhancing the reader’s empathy for real suffering – today’s suffering and future suffering alike. Maybe Netflix should get the Nicolas Cage that did 8MM to play Kovacs.

Morgan wrote two more books with Kovacs as a protagonist. Apparently the next one, Broken Angels, is something totally different, as it is more military SF. I’m adding it to my list of things to read in the summer. If pressed, I’d recommend Altered Carbon, albeit with all the caveats that follow from the above.

The review full is here.



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THE END OF ETERNITY --- Isaac Asimov (1955)

Colonial studies have been part of the curriculum for over two decades at literature faculties on universities across the globe. I wonder how many professors and scholars realize lots of science fiction can also be considered as literature that deals with colonialism. There's the obvious Prime Directive in mainstream culture's Star Trek. There's a variant of that in Banks' Culture novels: how and when to intervene in other--technologically less developed--cultures? There's Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville explored the theme a bit in Embassytown. And so forth... The fact that lots of SF deals with encountering and engaging with other, alien cultures makes it a perfect genre to explore real world colonial issues.

The End Of Eternity fits into this way of looking at SF as well. It is one of Asimov's stand-alone novels, and is considered among his best by many. The protagonist is Andrew Harland, one of the few who live in Eternity, a location outside place and time, where "Eternals" enact "Reality Changes", small, calculated shifts in the course of history made for the benefit of humankind. Though each Change is made for the greater good, there are also always costs.

For those who have read it, 1971's The Lathe Of Heaven of Le Guin instantly springs to mind. I have written extensively about my view on utilitarianism--an important theme in both books--in Lathe's review, so I will not repeat those here. Le Guin is more overtly critical on the matter than Asimov, who doesn't necessarily fault utilitarianism, but instead faults placid, safe, stale thinking, and pleads for ambition, difference, diversity and risk.

"Whom do you mean by 'we'? Man would not be a world, but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. there are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety... That is the Basic State of mankind."

(...)

The full review is here.


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BONE SWANS - stories by CSE Cooney (2015)

A few months ago I wrote a couple of paragraphs on the splendidly fresh The Bone Swans Of Amandale, a 28.000 word novella by C.S.E. Cooney. I ended that review with the promise to pick up the entire collection, and I've done just that.

Bone Swans features 5 stories--most about 40 pages. All of the stories can by read for free online (check the links below), but I think it merits a physical purchase, very much so. Unique, bold authors as Claire Cooney need all the support they can get. It will also be a great collection to read to your 12 year old kids--and bedtime reading from a tablet simply doesn't have the same charm. Not to mention screen light being bad for your loved ones' sleep cycles.

Everything I wrote about The Bone Swans of Amandale is true for the other 4 stories: "poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral." Maybe that last adjective doesn't go for every tale, but still: that's quite a row of lauding words. I cannot praise the collection enough. I'm fairly sure it will end up in my favorite ten reads this year...

Below a few notes on each story. Whatever you do after the jump, please, do read those four, short quotes.

(...)

The full review is here.


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THE DARKEST ROAD --- Guy Gavriel Kay (1986)

The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy declines in quality throughout. It's not a big decline, but a decline it is. The Summer Tree is spectacular. The Wandering Fire is still top-notch, yet the first book remains the better. The Darkest Road however doesn't merit 5 out of 5 stars anymore: let's say a solid 3.5 instead.

Using a word like "decline" in the first paragraph doesn't do these books justice, so let me be loud & clear: taken as a whole, The Fionavar Tapestry is highly recommended, and one of the classic series of the genre.

I'll briefly formulate a few reasons that made reading the third book the lesser experience: there's a structural issue, a prose problem, and one plot weakness. I'll conclude with writing a bit about the main theme and Kay's metaphysics.

Most of what I wrote in the reviews of the first and second book remains true. The Darkest Road doesn't change style or substance. Since I loved what Kay wrote in the first two books, that's mainly a strength, but maybe it's a weakness too, as book three is more of the same. It doesn't add a lot to the previous two books. While The Wandering Fire deepened the world and the characters, The Darkest Road simply follows the story to its expected conclusion: a big battle. Not that that battle plays out fully as expected, but still, The Darkest Road is very much a concluding volume, neatly tying every narrative thread.

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews, both SF.


THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES --- Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (2016)

I fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.

Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, Century Rain, Pushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.

Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!

I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.

Exhibit A.

(....)

The review full is here.



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THE MEMORY OF WHITNESS --- Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)

The Memory Of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance, is Kim Stanley Robinson's third book, and from what I can gather his most philosophical. In it, he tries to tie a few threads of thought together: how determinism ties in with quantum physics and free will; art as representation of reality; how human thinking corresponds with reality & direct and indirect kinds of knowledge. The device KSR uses to connect all this is music.

The Memory Of Whiteness is philosophical musings first, and story second. I don't think it has aged particularly well, and I don't think it has a lot to offer to people that are already familiar with the topics I listed above - and I don't mean as familiar like a CERN scientist, but familiar in a Quantum Physics For Dummies kinda way. I'm not sure how well known the general outlines of quantum physics were back in the 1980ies, but today those outlines are pretty much common knowledge to people with a healthy interest in their reality and a library card.

The notion of indeterminacy on a subatomic level has been a veritable feast for some philosophers of the postmodern ilk: an electron's speed can't be measured at the same time as its spin! Nothing is certain!! What we feel has been proven by hard science!!! Praise Heisenberg!!!! It went so far that people thinking philosophically about truth and representation - and that means nearly everybody writing theory about the arts, as most (if of not all) art is grounded in representation, as also non-representative art stems from representative predecessors - needed to become familiar with the Quantum. Of course, all this was quite overblown. It's not because some subatomic processes are strange and weird that our Newtonian world - still the only world we live in - all of a sudden becomes unknowable and undetermined. Still, serious writers and serious philosophers needed to opine about Schrödinger's cat and the possible existence of the Higgs boson, and Einstein's dictum that 'God doesn't play dice' was made fun of, even in works of popular culture that needed a claim on depth.

Kim Stanley Robinson clearly wasn't a fool, not even back in those days. He saw through this mirage of uncertainty, and envisioned a world that was beyond these debates.

Newtonian physics is deterministic. It is true that it fits into the larger framework of the probabilistic system of quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics fits into the larger framework of Holywelkin physics; and Holywelkin physics is again deterministic.

Holywelkin is a fictional scientist, and The Memory Of Whiteness is set in 3229 AD - it chronicles a tour of humanity's most important musician/composer throughout the solar system.

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews, one SF, one fantasy. First one is really recommended.


EUROPE IN AUTUMN --- Dave Hutchinson (2014)

I didn’t make a lot of notes while reading Europe In Autumn, the first book of the Fractured Europe sequence. That’s a good sign, in this case. Dave Hutchinson doesn’t try to do anything else than write a good book: there’s no philosophical pretension, no glaringly obvious attempts at social commentary, no need to teach us readers some moral lesson. It’s just 317 pages of solid storytelling – there’s not a single secondary thing that throws this book off balance.

No message doesn’t mean this book is without politics. Set in a not so distant future Europe, political disintegration – Brexit, Grexit, Scottish nationalism – has continued, as have cutbacks in the public sector. The Global War On Terrorism rages on. Schengen is dead. What exactly constitutes a nation has become increasingly murky – yet clearer too: money & violence.

At first Europe In Autumn doesn’t seem like SF – it’s more of a spy thriller: Alan Furst was one of Hutchinson’s inspirations. A thriller that starts in Kraków, Eastern Europe, and as such has a vibe similar to a lot of Cold War stories. There’s codes, and dead drops, and fake identities, and a cut off head in a locker. We are introduced into this world via a fairly standard plot device: the training of a new spook, Rudi – the main character. As the story progresses, the plot thickens, and the speculative nature of the book increases. It is extremely well done, and Hutchinson catches his readers by surprise. To say more would spoil the fun.

Whereas the first part of the novel doubles as a tutorial on spy stuff & the new political map of Europe, the second part ups the ante, and the pacing. (...)

The review full is here.



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THE PSYSIOGNOMY --- Jeffrey Ford (1997)

The Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

(...)

The full test is here.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews, one SF, one fantasy.

DEATH'S END --- Cixin Liu (2010, translated 2016)

Cultural differences exist. In the excellent article Wheat People vs. Rice People, T.M. Luhrmann discusses, among other things, insights from psychologist Thomas Talhelm, published in Science in 2014. Talhelm makes a convincing case for the fact that the difference between the individualism of the West and the more communal societies of the East can be traced back to their agricultural history. Rice needs a team effort to grow and harvest: rice fields “require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year.” Irrigation cannot be built and maintained by individual farmers, it needs a cooperating village. Wheat on the other hand can be grown much more easily: it “needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation.” It is hardly surprising that material circumstances shape cultures, but this particular link was eye-opening to me.

With all that in mind, it is also no surprise that Death’s End, the final volume in the Three Body trilogy, again shows humanity acting as one character. This is quite explicit: Cixin Liu inserts the image of humans acting like an ant colony a few times in the story’s 602 pages. It is not that Liu doesn’t recognize difference, it’s just that he focusses more on the end result of the whole.

Yifan said, “The universe contains multitudes. You can find any kind of ‘people’ and world. There are idealists like the Zero-Homers, pacifists, philanthropists, and even civilizations dedicated only to art and beauty. But they’re not the mainstream; they cannot change the direction of the universe.” “It’s just like the world of humans.”

In this respect, the novel is a lot like the previous book, with the important difference that I didn’t always feel humanity acted believable in The Dark Forest, whereas Death’s End – in that respect – regains the realism of the first book. In that respect, as it’s loud and clear very early on (...)

The review full is here.


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THE GRACE OF KINGS --- Ken Liu (2015)

he Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut. So, yes, this is my second DNF this year – the other’s here.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. I’m a huge fan of the short story collection Liu published earlier this year, and I liked his translation of The Three-Body Problem. It won the Locus First Novel, and there were a few positive reviews of bloggers whose opinion I respect.

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: (...)


The review full is here.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews, one classic 50ies SF, one fantasy. Sturgeon is no pulp for sure!


MORE THAN HUMAN --- Theodore Sturgeon (1953)

Theodore Sturgeon is one of SF’s greatest short fiction writers, and so it is apt that More Than Human stems from a novella, Baby Is Three. Sturgeon added a part before and a part after. Each part is quite distinct, 3 novellas if you will, but taken as a whole, they are yet another, different thing. Readers familiar with this book’s content will not find that surprising: More Than Human is roughly speaking about a mind-reading idiot, teleporting twin girls, a retarded baby with a supermind and a telekinetic girl, together forming something new: the “Homo Gestalt” – something more than human indeed.

I’ll make a few general remarks on content and writing first, and elaborate a bit about the philosophical foundations of this book in the second part of my review – Friedrich Nietzsche, oh yes!

Obviously, the fifties were a different time, and parapsychology and the likes still held great promise. I started my reviews of Childhood’s End and The Demolished Man in the same fashion. So yes, this is science fiction, even though it might read as psychic fantasy at times. Sturgeon even gives a kind of hard SF explanation for his premisses, should his reader have trouble with suspension of disbelief.

“It would lead to the addition of one more item to the Unified Field – what we now call psychic energy, or ‘psionics.'” “Matter, energy, space, time and psyche,” he breathed, awed. “Yup,” Janie said casually, “all the same thing (…).”

But I have no interesting in pointing out where More Than Human feels a bit dated, as it remains an outstanding novel. Approach this simply as you would approach a contemporary novel like Susanna Clarke’s: a supernatural tale.

The first part of the book focuses on the early life of the idiot, living in the woods, being one with nature. Certain parts felt like something Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Thoreau could have written. Imagine my delight when I read on Sturgeon’s Wikipedia page he was a distant relative of Emerson. Sturgeon’s prose is a treat. At times it has a bit of formal ring to it, but there’s great lines throughout.

(...)

The full review is here.


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THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU AND OTHER STORIES --- Susanna Clarke (2006)

Susanna 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.

(...)

The full review is here.
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Re: great SF books

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To Dune or not to Dune???


WHIPPING STAR --- Frank Herbert (1970)

I can’t explain how I feel about this book without this first paragraph. There are minor spoilers in it, but nearly all of them are made pretty clear early on in the novel. Whipping Star‘s plot more or less boils down to this: a sadistic, psychotic woman with vast amounts of wealth – who was obliged to undergo conditioning so she wouldn’t be able to tolerate seeing pain in others anymore – has her minions nonetheless whip (with an actual bullwhip) a godlike alien (visible to humans as a small star the size of a big football & the shape of a spoon) that has the power to transport everything across space & time in the blink of an eye. Our villain can do this because the alien shows no feelings of pain. The alien lets her do this because it willingly entered a contract with her: being whipped in exchange for knowledge about humanity. However, in the very near future, the alien (that calls itself Fanny Mae!) will die because of the whippings, and when it dies, it will cause all other sentient beings – including humanity and a host of other aliens – to die instantly. There’s a kind of government agent trying to solve the problem, but the alien has hidden the sadistic women on some planet in another dimension as part of the contract.

Well – and you thought giant sandworms were odd.

(...)

Whipping Star is definitely interesting for its goofiness. I’d even say this: as it isn’t a timeless classic like Dune, it might even be more interesting than Dune – that is, for those interested in the history of SF, and for scholars of the times in which it was published.

(...)


The full review is here.
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Re: great SF books

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2 new reviews, one classic 80ies SF, one new 2016 title. Both recommended!


BURNING CHROME & other stories --- William Gibson (1986)

On 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.

(...)

The full review is here.

-----

NINEFOX GAMBIT --- Yoon Ha Lee (2016)

I was a bit afraid to start this book. I craved some new, cutting edge space opera. But it looked liked one of the basic plot premises seemed like magic. The calendrical system people use determines what kind of technology – weapons included – works in a particular region?? Could be unbelievable & probably is prone to plot holes. I don’t like fantasy that dresses up as SF (exhibit Dark Orbit), but I decided to give it a go.

Ninefox Gambit is the debut novel of Yoon Ha Lee – famous short story writer. It’s also the first book in a trilogy, The Machineries Of Empire. While the basic story in this volume concludes nicely in 317 fast paced pages, the big story is only just beginning. Nothing new there.

How about that fear?


Well, Ninefox Gambit isn’t hard SF. But it’s not magic either. The technology simply isn’t the focus, or at least not in the hard SF sense. Hannu Rajaniemie speaks of “poetry” in his praise, and that’s not far of the mark: a lot of the concepts and technology exist mainly as names – very few things are described – and those names indeed have a kind of surreal, poetic quality. It makes the first couple of chapters difficult: as a reader you have to keep guessing to interpret the shadowy world building. It’s not bad writing, on the contrary: it’s part of the novel’s charm. Yoon Ha Lee has found quite a distinct voice. On top of that, Lee drops us in the action, and nothing is explained.

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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4 new reviews: 3 SF titles (old & new), and one fantasy.


DYING INSIDE --- Robert Silverberg (1972)

Okay, 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?

(...)

The full review is here.

-----

CENTRAL STATION --- Lavie Tidhar (2016)

It 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.

(...)

So, back to Central Station. I doubt readers that consume only non-genre “literary” fiction will find much to love here. More on that later. Sure, some will love it because of the novelty value they’ll experience: for somebody who isn’t initiated in SF this book might seem original, ticking of one of those criteria I listed. On the other hand, people that read only SFF might be persuaded that they’ve read something “deep” as Publisher’s Weekly said this has true literary elements, and it feels a bit, yeah, hard to explain, it feels like literature, it’s vague and, well, hard to explain, it has this vibe.


(...)

The full review: here.



-------


MEMORY OF WATER --- Emmi Itäranta (2012/2014)

A 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 (...)

It's here in full.


-----

GARDENS OF THE MOON --- Erik Stevenson (1999)

I don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.

That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.

So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.

I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.

(...)

Here's the full review.

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Re: great SF books

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2 new SF reviews

LIGHT --- M. John Harrison (2002)

Damn: 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.

(...)

The full review is here


----------------

LAKE OF THE LONG SUN --- Gene Wolfe (1994)

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.

(...)

The full review is here

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Re: great SF books

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4 new reviews: a SF classic (Stand On Zanzibar), the brand new KSR (New York 2140), the second installment in The Fractured Europe series: one of 2015's best (Europe At Midnight) + Le Guin's Fantasy classic Wizard of Earthsea...


STAND ON ZANZIBAR --- John Brunner (1968)

Judith 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. Obviously, some people 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.

(...)

The full review is here


----------------

NEW YORK 2140 --- Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)

It’s no denying I’m a KSR fanboy. It’s also no denying I avidly share the same concerns as so many: climate change, rising inequality, the grip of finance on global politics. So I really wanted to like this book. And I did – up unto the first 250 pages. The remaining 363, not so much.

As the cover and the title make clear, New York 2140 follows firmly in the line of Kim Stanley Robinson’s near future novels: there was Washington & climate change in the Science of the Capital trilogy, refurbished in 2015 as the mammoth Green Earth, and California & three different scenarios in his early series The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990).

This time the sea level has risen spectacularly and New York has turned into a New Venice. The book follows nine characters that all live in the same building: a market trader, a police inspector, an environmental activist/nude model internet star, the building’s manager, two orphan boys straight from Huckleberry Finn, a lawyer and two coders trying to rig the Wall Street system.

At first the book is simply great. Robinson uses a mature, daring voice. It is his most ironic mode yet, his most openly self-aware book. He even addresses the reader straight on about his tendency to infodump. In between chapters there’s snippets of quotes from various sources about New York and its history, often funny. They work wonderfully well in tandem with the main text. New York 2140‘s subject is quite heavy, but the writing often manages to be light and breezy. I laughed out loud several times. KSR uses language creatively, with stuff like “thinking they are great gestalters” or “I pikettied the U.S. tax code” and a newly coined adverb like “realworldistically” – all examples of a playful intellectualism. A joy to read.

The story starts with a disappearance that has the smell of a high tech heist movie. There’s also an old school treasure hunt going on, and there’s the general vibe of 22nd century New York with all kinds of new technology dealing with the new water level. It all contributes to a Big Sense of Anticipation, especially since the story has 613 pages, and I know what KSR is capable of: I was set for a long, boisterous feast. (More on the cake later.)

But after a while I slowly started to notice some problems, and those problems only got worse. After I read the book, I started reading some interviews (collected on the excellent, extensive fan site kimstanleyrobinson.info), and those interviews confirmed and explained my suspicions of what went wrong.

In the remaining part of this review, I’ll quote a few parts from various interviews, and use those to explain why this will be the first KSR book I’ll probably sell at the local second hand shop. But – and this needs the extra stress – that does not mean New York 2140 will be a bad read for you, dear read: that also hinges for a big part upon what news and non-fiction you have consumed the last couple of years, as I’ll explain in my next paragraph.

(...)

The full review is here


--------------

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT --- Dave Hutchinson (2015)

When I reread my review of Europe In Autumn, I realized I’d actually written a review for Europe At Midnight already. Nearly everything I mentioned there holds true for this second installment in the Fractured Europe Sequence: no filler, solid prose, interesting geopolitical setting, some references to spy novels, no pretension, entertaining, fresh, snappy, imaginative, gritty. As you might know, Midnight is not a sequel to Autumn, but more of a companion volume.

So, what’s the new?


(...)

The full review is here


-----------------------

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA --- Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)

When I was 14 or so, I tried to read a Dutch translation of A Wizard Of Earthsea, but stopped a few chapters in. It didn’t click – maybe because it was a bad translation, or maybe because this might not be a children’s book at all. Or maybe it was because at 14 I was too old to appreciate it as a child, and too young to appreciate it for what it really is: a humbling, brilliant piece of writing.

Le Guin’s first book in what would eventually become a cycle of six – The Tombs Of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001) – appeared a year before her other landmark work: The Left Hand Of Darkness.

TLHOD is a favorite of mine, but I think this surpasses it – easily. Why?

(...)

The full review is here

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Re: great SF books

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4 new reviews: an overlooked SF classic (Brian Aldiss' debut about at generational starship, one of the first books to tackle that subject), an old one about interspecies sex & the postman (Sirius), Herbert's "best non-Dune book" and an hyped 2015 Fantasy book that one 4 awards.


NON-STOP --- Brian Aldiss (1958)

Non-Stop is a short book by today’s standards: only 160 pages in a pocket edition. Yet it manages to cram quite a lot of content in its small space: a nice analogy for a book about a generational starship.

Some claim giving that away is spoiling it, but the knowledge is out in the open on page 21, and the book was published in the US as Starship.

Non-Stop/Starship is the debut novel of Brian Wilson Aldiss, and one that left me wanting to read more of his work.

The book is not entirely without problems. It’s partly 50ies pulp, especially in the character department. Today’s readers might complain about a lack of depth or character development. Yet to do so would be the result of superficial reading. Indeed, there’s only 160 pages, and Non-Stop generally focuses on plot, so drawing complex characters wasn’t Aldiss’s main intention. There’s simply not enough room for it.


(...)

The full review is here


----------------

SIRIUS --- Olaf Stapledon (1944)

I wrote a 10-page analysis of Last And First Men, Stapledon’s 1930 cult fiction debut. I wasn’t fully convinced by it, but I understood its historical relevance. I didn’t really plan to read another Stapledon title, but I came across Sirius in a second-hand store for 5 euros, and both the cover and the subject appealed to me, so I took my chances.

No 10-page review this time – I’ll try to make it snappy. Unlike Stapledon, who manages to make a mere 188-page novel drag and drag and drag. Not that he doesn’t set a bar for himself – the narrator of the book calls himself a “novelist” trying to “penetrate” into the “essential spirit”.

(...)

The full review is here


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THE DOSADI EXPERIMENT --- Frank Herbert (1977)

The Dosadi Experiment is set in the same universe as Whipping Star, but it’s a very different book: it doesn’t feel as absurd & cartoonish. It’s not really a sequel either, so you can read them independently. As usual, Val’s Random Comments does a great job summarizing the basic premise of the novel, so I won’t dwell on that too long: basically Dosadi is a planet with extreme living conditions on which some conspiracy secretly put inhabitants to see what such conditions would do to their society, in order to gain insight in politics and power systems.

That gets me to the million dollar question already: yay or nay?


(...)

The full review is here


-----------------------

UPROOTED --- Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest.

While Tolkien’s forest-as-a-character already had ecological overtones, ecology as a theme is surprisingly absent from Uprooted – eco-warriors should look elsewhere for their fiction fix.

The first two thirds of the novel are a joy. Novik’s pacing is great: this novel turns and twists rather unpredictably. The prose is clear and goes down easily. The atmosphere holds great promise. It’s not nearly as dark as Cooney, and it could have been easily marketed as YA too, but that doesn’t matter, as Novik manages to tap into the delight stories like this provide, and makes it look easy.

(...)

The full review is here

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Re: great SF books

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5 new reviews, 3 SF, 2 fantasy. The new Stephenson, the sequel to Luna: New Moon, Beyond Apollo - a 1972 classic, Gaiman's American Gods and the sequel to The Darkness That Comes Before?


THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O. ---Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland (2017)

(...)

I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”

That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.

Did I get that?

(...)

The full review is here


----------------


AMERICAN GODS --- Neil Gaiman (2001)

(...)

That brings me to the philosophical underpinnings of this 500+ page novel. What is it really about? Is it a postmodern book about the final, decisive victory of modernity? Is this actually a book about a paradigm shift? Gaiman has some meta passages about metaphors and such, and clearly is too clever to let himself pigeonholed by deconstructionists. Not everything in this book is what it seems to be – and I’m not even talking about the coin tricks. Yet this lack of conceptual clarity ultimately is American God‘s biggest failure.

(...)

The full review is here


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BEYOND APOLLO --- Barry Malzberg (1972)

Barry N. Malzberg’s most famous work, Beyond Apollo, has an air of controversy to it. When it won the first ever John W. Campbell award in 1973, some considered it an insult to Campbell, as Beyond Apollo lacks the positivity and wonder associated with Campbell’s strain of space exploring SF. It also features a huge amount of sex, a protagonist with mental health issues and a plot that is unresolved.

All that still is enough for some contemporary Goodreads reviewers to express their disgust with all the “mechanical sex, misogyny and closet-homosexuality”. They simply pan the novel as just random “nonsense”, “bizarre” and probably fueled by “LSD”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Beyond Apollo is short, only 138 pages, but it packs a walloping punch. A punch right in the gut of truth and modernism’s optimism.

(...)

The full review is here


----------------


LUNA: WOLF MOON --- Ian McDonald (2017)

(...)

The biggest fault of this book is a secular version of handwavium. Lucas Corta’s machinations and political scheming remain esoteric. He manages to do very big things, but it feels like magic, as we are never explained how. McDonald focuses on the practical results of the cabal wizardry, but as a reader even those results are hard to follow. If the narrative viewpoint had been singular, this would have been justifiable – I don’t expect to have auctorial access to everything – but as Lucas is one of the main characters, and what he does is crucial to this book’s plot, not explaining seems like a giant cop out.

(...)

The full review is here


----------------


THE WARRIOR PROPHET --- R. Scott Bakker (2005)

I dropped out of this book after 200 of its 600 pages, and that kind of makes me sad.

I really liked the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy: I read 54 books last year, and The Darkness That Comes Before was one of the 10 best.

This second installment is so much of a disappointment, I don’t even feel like explaining why. I’ll try anyhow, but I’ll keep it short.

Bakker explains why this is such a lesser book himself, in the first sentence of the acknowledgements that precede it:

(...)

The full review is here


Thanks for reading!

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Re: great SF books

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3 new reviews: some older SF, and a new genre-defying short story collection by M. John Harrison that deserves a wide audience, also outside speculative fiction fans...

Here's my 2017 favorites post by the way: https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress ... favorites/


----------------


A FUNERAL FOR THE EYES OF FIRE --- Michael Bishop (1980)

This “anthropological SF” book has a somewhat confusing history. In 1975 Michael Bishop published his debut, A Funeral For The Eyes Of Fire. It didn’t sell well, but Bishop continued writing – books like Catacomb Years and Transfigurations. In 1978 David Hartwell of Pocket Books offered Bishop a contract to rewrite his first novel. The result was published in 1980 as Eyes Of Fire, with a cover almost identical to the first edition. To make things even more confusing, in 1989 Kerosina Books published that new version under the exact same title as the debut, something Bishop would have liked to have done in 1980 too, but didn’t, to avoid confusing potential readers. In 2015 Kudzu Planet reprinted the 1980 version, also as A Funeral For The Eyes Of Fire, yet again with another cover.

All that explains why Goodreads at the moment still has just one entry for the two texts. Both books differ tremendously however, and the differences are chronicled quite detailed in the 1989 edition, most explicitly in an afterword by Ian Watson, as well as in the extensive foreword by Bishop himself. Just to be clear, Bishop prefers the second version: he will not allow a reprint of the first book.

The differences are not a matter of rephrasing some sentences and the addition or subtraction of a few scenes. This is not simply a director’s cut like Green Earth. While the overall idea of the plot and the philosophical foundations of the story are more or less the same, the two protagonists have a very different relation to each other, the aliens’ anatomy differs, and the social reality on the planet were the bulk of the story is set, is significantly different. And while the debut had a first person narrator, this is a third person narrative. The fact that nearly all names are changed too isn’t even that important.

Anyhow, it seems like Bishop took the basic ideas of his debut, and wrote a whole new book. Watson puts it like this:

The new novel is far more disciplined and tauter; but where another writer might merely have pruned excesses, Bishop has not merely reorchestrated but has written an entirely different symphony based on the same themes – and on several new ones.

Just to be clear: I’ve read the 1989 edition, and so this review can double as a review for 1980’s Eyes Of Fire too.

(...)

The full review is here

--------


WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... --- Joanna Russ (1975)

(...)

The main gist of what I wanted to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better know The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

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The full review is here

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

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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.

Themes are not about a suffocating bureaucracy however, yet the atmosphere is at times just as claustrophobic and harrowing. It is contemporary life that suffocates Harrison’s characters – the disillusion of middle age, loneliness, broken relationships between broken people, falling out.

(...)

The full review is here

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Re: great SF books

Post by schiksalgemeinschaft »

2 new reviews: the second in Erikson's Epic Fantasy series, and a non-SF book by Frank Herbert.


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DEADHOUSE GATES --- Steven Erikson (2000)

When I wrote my review for Gardens Of The Moon, I didn’t have that much new to offer to readers familiar with the series, and instead I tried to convince possible new readers to give that book a go, as it was one of my favorite reads that year. This is the sequel: what to say about a 943-page book that is the second in a 10-book series, set in a universe co-created with Ian Esslemont – who also wrote another 7 books?

Let me start this review by something that could be also of interest to readers not familiar with the series, namely the philosophical foundations underlying the book, and presumably the entirety of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen.

After that, I’ll try to voice my assessment of Deadhouse Gates as a work of High Fantasy fiction – the actual review, so to say. That might also be of interest to readers still pondering whether to start this series, as I didn’t feel this book to be as successful as Gardens Of The Moon.

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The full review is here

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SOUL CATCHER --- Frank Herbert (1972)

A few years ago, I decided to read the most important other Herbert novels before starting a reread of the Dune series. A review of Children Of Dune on the always thoughtful Gaping Blackbird, made me eager to start that reread. That review focuses on the Nietzschean inspiration of CoD, and it led to an interesting discussion in the comments. So, I was eager to dive into Dune again, but as I still had Soul Catcher on my TBR, I started that.

Yesterday, after finishing Soul Catcher, I decided to kick the reread of Dune even a bit further back, and I ordered Destination: Void, on account of Joachim Boaz, who praised Herbert’s handling of its characters’ psyches in the comments of my Whipping Star review – as Soul Catcher is first and foremost a character driven novel, and one that even succeeds at that. I have to admit I had given up on Herbert as non-Dune writer, as Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment and The Santaroga Barrier all disappointed. So I’m all the more pleased to report Soul Catcher was a good read, and one that invigorated me to give Destination: Void an honest chance.

Genre classifications being what they are, potential readers should be aware that Soul Catcher is not speculative fiction. Rob Weber reported in his review on Val’s Random Comments that the publisher, Putnam, even put the following on the back flap: “This is Frank Herbert’s first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune…”. Novels were not the same as science fiction books in 1972. Interestingly enough, there is no trace of that attitude on my 1979 edition, on the contrary. As you can see on the 1979 cover I included here, both the illustration and the text try to tap on to a speculative vibe: this is a “terrifying novel of the Spirit World”. Apparently Soul Catcher didn’t really catch on as regular literary fiction, and 7 years later, marketing decided to firmly latch it to Herbert’s other output – it’s pretty clear if you compare the vibe of the covers of first two editions to the later one. The 2012 cover reverts the approach again. As always, ISFDB has a good overview of all the different cover art.

As Rob also wrote, the fact that this isn’t a SF book should not deter Herbert fans: “the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert’s other works.”

Soul Catcher deals with a Native American kidnapping a 13-year old boy with the intent to kill him, as symbolical revenge for the rape of his own sister by a gang of white men, and her ensuing suicide – and by extension all the other crimes against the indigenous humans of the continent. As such it is a book that simply would not be published in these times of hired sensitivity readers. It would not get published just because of sensitivity issues: on top of that a white man writing a story like this without a doubt would get accused of cultural appropriation too. The fact that Herbert researched the subject extensively and clearly does not sympathize with white, Western genocidary imperialism would not excuse him. I’m sure today no publisher would dare to take a chance in our era of hair trigger culture wars.

After the jump you’ll find a rather lengthy discussion of a few different things: Soul Catcher as a psychological novel that also teaches us about today’s ‘terrorist’ violence; Soul Catcher as a critique on Western society and its interesting, realistic use of the ‘noble savage’ trope; a discussion on the use of ‘soul’ vs. ‘spirit’; a nugget for Dune fans; and my thoughts on the powerful ending and that ending’s relation to a movie adaptition that might or might not be made.

Certain sections are quote heavy, but obviously you can skim those if the particular topic doesn’t interest you that much.

(...)

The full review is here

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Re: great SF books

Post by schiksalgemeinschaft »

6 new reviews since my last post: Don DeLillo, Naomi Mitchinson, Iain Banks, KSR, Alfred Bester & Dave Hutchinson

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ACADIE --- Dave Hutchinson (2017)

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.

Hutchinson’s narrative voice is again as confident as it is in Europe. The general feel however, is pretty different.

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The full review is here

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THE STARS MY DESTINATION --- Alfred Bester (1956)

When I read The Demolished Man – Bester’s debut novel – over a year ago, I was impressed by his command of pacing, tension and prose. I didn’t really think it a SF novel though, at least not by today’s standards: Freud and telepathy are not considered scientific anymore. There were other issues too: no character development, a rather binary view on humanity and tons of plot inconsistencies. Still: people were impressed, and The Demolished Man won the first ever Hugo.

Three years later, Galaxy Magazine published The Stars My Destination in serialized form. It first appeared as a novel in the UK as Tiger! Tiger! – the USA edition again used the original title. In these three years, Bester has grown tremendously as a science fiction author. So much, his second book is nearly universally praised. William Gibson even called it “a model, a template” for Neuromancer. My edition has an afterword by Neil Gaiman, and laudatory quotes by Silverberg, Delany and Haldeman.

That begs the obvious question: do I agree with these gents?

Short answer: yes and no.

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The full review is here

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SHAMAN --- Kim Stanley Robinson (2013)

The first book by Kim Stanley Robinson I read was 2312, and I was so impressed I read Aurora soon after that. In hindsight, I started with what must be his most ‘regular’ science fiction novels, one set on a generational starship, and the other in a high-tech future society spread out over the solar system. Since then, I’ve been mostly trying to read KSR in order of publication, and I enjoyed most of his earliest output too.

I wasn’t to thrilled about last year’s New York 2140 though, and before starting yet another near-future book with 1984’s The Wild Shore, I decided to balance things out a bit, and read the book published between 2312 and Aurora.

It’s interesting that Shaman is Robinson’s least speculative book – it’s not SF, but straight out historical fiction about the tribe of people who made the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, 32.000 years ago, during the Ice Age, in what is now the south of France.

In interviews, KSR twists the meaning of the word “science fiction”, and calls this book SF in the sense that is fiction about the origins of science – a trick Stephenson also pulled when he published his Baroque trilogy set in the 17th century.

As always Robinson did his research, and he devoured 4 bookshelves worth of scientific literature: archeology, and anthropology about people who lived in Stone Age conditions when Western civilization arrived – Inuit, Australian Aboriginals, and various indigenous tribes. All this research notwithstanding, there is obviously an amount of speculation in Shaman, as there is no way of knowing things for sure. So, while it is twisting the moniker again, Shaman could be called speculative fiction too.

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The full review is here

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THE ALGEBRAIST --- Iain M. Banks (2004)

People change. I’ve been reading SF for about a decade now, and Banks was one of my first loves. As I’ve explained in my review of Inversions, when he died in 2013 I still had a few of his books on my TBR, and I decided to savor them. Bad decision it turns out: much to my disappointment, I was terribly bored by The Algebraist. I stopped on page 242 of 534 and in hindsight I should have stopped at least 100 pages earlier.

I will never know whether I would have liked this book 5 or 10 years ago. A reread of some Culture novels will probably shed some light on that, but I cannot remember those books to have the problems I encountered here. Three and a half years ago I still liked Surface Detail, and I liked it a lot.

The Algebraist has drained my energy, and as a result I don’t even feel like writing a lengthy review – even though I usually like panning books that failed to connect with me. So let’s make it snappy.

There’s two main reasons why this space opera tome didn’t work for me.

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The full review is here


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MEMOIRS OF A SPACEWOMAN --- Naomi Mitchison (1962)

Each and every contemporary review of Memoirs Of A Spacewoman I have found is overall positive, if not glowing. That’s understandable, as an obscure 60ies title by an author that is not generally known in the SF community takes a special kind of reader: the lover of “vintage scifi”. One does not coincidentally read this kind of book.

Recurring readers of this blog might have guessed I’m not a total, unconditional vintage SF fan. I read older SF for two reasons: to broaden my view on the history of the genre, and as a part of my search for SF that has endured the ages, and still does the job in 2018 as well. I’m a lenient reader as far as the first reason goes, but hard to please in the latter. Schizoid inner conflict being the result, it makes certain reviews harder to do.

This book can be considered partly as feminist writing, yet it was not marketed as such back in the days: publishers used to stress the sexual content, as Memoirs “explores with compassion and wit the infinite possibilities of erotic relationships between a human space-traveller and the bizarre incumbents of the planets she visits” according to my 1976 edition.

Mitchison does a few things I have not come across often, if at all, and as such this book has a radical quality to it.

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The full review is here

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ZERO K --- Don DeLillo (2016)

Calling Zero K science fiction is a bit of a stretch: companies that offer to freeze your body in the hope of future medical advances do exist, and have for quite some time. There is an amount of scientific speculation in Zero K, but do not expect the technology or the science to be the focus. Not that this matters much – SF readers with an open mind will find much to savor here.

The book’s structure is set up to lure the regular SF reader in: the bulk of the world building – so to say – happens in the first half of the book. We are introduced to The Convergence, a remote and secret compound where wealthy people choose to be frozen. The subdued sense of wonder is real, and the scenes, like the compound’s structures itself, are strange, detached, and at times even reminded me of Kafka. When it slowly turns out this book is not really a science fiction novel, but something entirely of its own, I couldn’t care less about its classification, and was entirely hooked.

A few chapters in I was more curious about DeLillo himself, and I read up on him before I continued. It entirely changed the way I framed the book: DeLillo was 79 years old when Zero K was published. Knowing an author is 79 instead of 49 or 28 obviously is a big deal. It somehow deepens the text, as we associate old age with wisdom and experience. I don’t want to claim old writers are necessarily good writers: there are plenty of authors that aren’t able to rise above the level of their debut. It’s just that in the case of DeLillo I couldn’t help but think of John Ashbery, one of America’s most celebrated poets, who died at age 90 in 2017. I suddenly started to see the parallels with Ashbery’s work in Zero K.

(...)

The full review is here

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Re: great SF books

Post by schiksalgemeinschaft »

5 new reviews since my last post here... classic Pohl, short stories by JG Ballard, military space opera by Yoon Ha Lee, Vonnegut's sophomore book, and a fantastic near-future novel by Dexter Palmer.

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THE FOUR DIMENSIONAL NIGHTMARE --- J.G. Ballard (1963)

This collection of short fiction is my first exposure to James Graham Ballard. 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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The full review is here

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GATEWAY --- Frederik Pohl (1977)

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The Freudian stuff is dated and a bit goofy at times, yet Gateway remains an engaging read. That is quite an accomplishment actually, as about a third of the book are those therapy sessions. The strange part is I can't really put my finger on why this book still works. I guess there's enough of everything: enough mystery, enough character depth, enough space gadgetry, enough inward voyage, enough spaceship claustrophobia, enough dystopian social critique that's still relevant today - it might not be intricate or complex, but it is all solid.

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The full review is here

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RAVEN STRATAGEM --- Yoon Ha Lee (2017)

While I don't really feel like it, I can't but start this review with an opinion on a minor event in the blogosphere some time ago. If you have no interest in a discussion of ethics in SF, and just want my opinion on Raven Stratagem, scroll down to the actual review at the very end. The first part of the text might also be of interest to those who haven't read any of Yoon Ha Lee's books, as the discussion is much, much wider than that.

About a year ago, 3 people in the so-called Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury posted reviews about Ninefox Gambit, the first book of The Machineries Of Empire.

Contrary to popular opinion - 9FG won the Locus for Best First Novel - those reviews were essentially negative, on what are essentially moral grounds.

These three individuals are not marginal voices in SF fandom. Before most activity on her blog stopped - as she overdosed on commercially-hyped SF - Megan AM of From Couch To Moon was one the most respected and influential online reviewers of SF. Nina Allan is a speculative author herself: her most recent novel The Rift won the BSFA and the Red Tentacle. Jonathan McCalmont was shortlisted twice for the BSFA for best non-fiction writer, and writes for Strange Horizons and Interzone.

For starters, here are four quotes that capture the essence of the argument, with links to the original texts. Clicking the links is worth your while, as the original pieces are extremely well written, that differ in their opinions on the book in crucial respects, and all have a number of valid, lucid insights. I have no intention to go into all arguments, and do not claim these quotes represent the texts in full. They do however show a convergence over at least one point of criticism, a point I do want to examine thoroughly.

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The full review is here

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THE SIRENS OF TITAN --- Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

I generally read up on books online before I review them, and it doesn't happen a lot I come across a good, thorough scholarly essay that's available online. The fact that I did find one about The Sirens Of Titan attests to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s status as an author embraced by the literary establishment. A big part of that is the fact that Vonnegut did not write clearcut science fiction, but something that seems more important to the uninitiated. His voice is critical, satirical, grotesque. The question of genre is exactly the subject of said essay.

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The full review is here

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VERSION CONTROL --- Dexter Palmer (2016)

"History lives in the gap between information and the truth."

Let me get this out of the way: Version Control - Dexter Palmer's second novel - is BRILLIANT. Recurrent readers know that I don't often slap on such high praise.

It might just be the best 2016 book I've read, and it might just be the best book I've read so far this year. It's either this or Zero K for both questions - I'm having a hard time deciding. It doesn't really matter anyway. Then again, maybe Version Control might have one thing speaking against it that Zero K has less of. More on that later, especially as this one thing doesn't really matter right now.

(...)

The other Big Sci-Fi Thing in Version Control is the Time Machine. This is actually the first time travel novel I have ever read that gets things right: there is nothing of the time travel paradox to be found in so many other stories. Maybe this is because, again, this is not really really a time travel story to begin with. There's none of the cool robots from the future as in Terminator 2, nor does it feature Vikings in a shopping mall as in The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. Version Control is more in line with Groundhog Day and the German movie Lola Rennt, but it is nonetheless its own thing, and very much so.

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For the sake of analysis, let me point out how this novel uses the concept of time travel and something often connected with it: changing events that happened, killing Hitler, trying to change future events.

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The full review is here