great SF books

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Re: great SF books

Post by walto »

Ballard, Pohl, Bester, Vonnegut, DeLillo--You're making me feel really old!
"Freedom of thought and speech without available means of gaining information and methods of sound analysis, are empty. Protection and security are meaningless until there is something positive worth protecting." E.W. Hall

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Re: great SF books

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walto wrote:Ballard, Pohl, Bester, Vonnegut, DeLillo--You're making me feel really old!
Time to read the Palmer then!

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Re: great SF books

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Couple of new posts, a bit in a different format.

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

DARK MATTER - Blake Crouch (2016)

(...) What is missing from all the reviews I’ve read is the fact that this story is also an emotional reflection about having a family. It uses these reflections – on fatherhood and being a loving partner – to get the protagonist elegantly out of a conundrum that seems impossible to solve. Most books with a similar set-up – just as time travel stories – fail to deliver a satisfying ending. Dark Matter manages to avoid a pitfall of the multiverse trope and doesn’t short-circuit. (...)

THE DOOR - Magda Szabo (1987)

(...) The Door has a haunting, poetic quality, yet it isn’t written in service of an aesthetic. This is both a simple tale and a brutal cudgel. The Door is not a fantasy novel, but there's some fairy-like stuff in it, and it should appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke.

A deeply human book, a deserved classic, a masterpiece even. I don’t say this lightly. (...)

Full reviews here.

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BLINDSIGHT - Peter Watts (2018)

(...) While it is not without problems, I enjoyed reading it a lot. Watts wrote a page turner about first contact. His ideas are often wild and especially the first two thirds of the novel are among the best the genre has to offer – if you don’t expect your reading to spoon feed you that is. Easy breezy reading it is not.

This book is mainly about the human brain, and Watts is a clear advocate of neurobiological determinism – how can one not be, looking at all the evidence? It’s also about the nature of intelligence: does that need consciousness or not? The other big thematic angle is information processing.

It’s interesting to see that lots of the ideas he drew from have become a bit more known a decade later – I didn’t learn a lot of new things, but it was nice to see so much tidbits about our nature crammed into a novel. (...) My main issue with Blindsight is that it’s not as clever as it makes us readers believe. (...)

H IS FOR HAWK - Helen MacDonald

Full reviews here.


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THE WINDUP GIRL – Paolo Bacigalupi (2009), CALDÉ OF THE LONG SUN – Gene Wolfe (1995) and THE FREEZE-FRAME REVOLUTION – Peter Watts (2018)

The full reviews are here.

------

Also stopped reading Red Moon, the new novel (2018) by Kim Stanley Robinson. I won't review it, but in short: KSR is becoming too transparent and too formulaic at this point in his career - resulting in me being bored, and calling it quits after about 100 pages.
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Re: great SF books

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Again a long review this time:


DESTINATION: VOID - Frank Herbert (1965)

(...)

So if I have to believe others - and I do - there is a certain technical merit in these kind of passages. The fact that Herbert himself even updated his work to the standards of the new day, indicates he was serious to a certain extent. So it's not just all random non-nonsensical gobbledygook, not at all.

The paradox is that it reads as gobbledygook nonetheless, and while the book may have (had) some technical merit, ultimately it fails spectacularly, as no one has ever tried to use this book as a manual to try and design conscious AI, because in the end, Herbert too relies on handwavium - technical posturing notwithstanding.

(...)

That Herbert didn't take a stab at true brain science can't be held against him: while the first human EEG was already recorded in 1924, the much more precise MEG signals were first measured in 1968, and rudimentary CAT, PET and MRI scanning techniques only originated in the early 70ies.

All this does not mean the book is a total failure.

(...)


Full review here.

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Re: great SF books

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Three new reviews:


THE BONE CLOCKS - David Mitchell (2014)

What a fantastic book this is. Or rather 6 books. David Mitchell's sixth novel is a tour de force. Mitchell is no small name: Cloud Atlas gathered widespread praise and attention - and also in The Bone Clocks he serves a grand narrative via 6 connected stories across 6 points in time - from 1984 to 2043, seasoned with a few shorter asides going back to earlier centuries. And similarly, The Bone Clocks is genre defying in a manner that's pretty singular: the bulk of the book being straight forward literary fiction, but nonetheless with a backbone that's firmly supernatural fantasy, and a final part that is straightforward, hard hitting dystopian near-future science fiction. This should appeal to nearly any type of reader, and I think it's a masterpiece - not a term I whip out lightly.

I will return to the significance and impact of the final 6th in the second half of this review, and that part might be of interest for those of you who've read this book 3 or 4 years ago. It might be time to reconsider a few things. But first let me get a few other, more general remarks out of the way.

I haven't read Cloud Atlas, or any of his other books, so I can't comment on whether this title is better or not - and part of the answer to that question will be taste - but I can't shake the feeling this is Mitchell's magnus opus - for now. Written in a seemingly effortless and tasty prose, filled with real characters, genuine emotions, strong & urgent themes relevant to us all - this isn't only escapist reading. Add to that a broad, kaleidoscopic feel, and an intricately constructed plot that's obviously visible to a degree, yet so confident that you do not mind seeing the construction - as one does not mind seeing the brushstrokes when examining a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh up close, on the contrary even: seeing the actual brushstrokes and how they work in the composition is part of the joy.

(...)


Full review here.


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THE FARTHEST SHORE - Ursula Le Guin (1973)

(...)

Crucial parts of the book are devoted to advocating the fact that people should only do what they must do, what they need to do. This inner necessity guiding The Farthest Shore‘s characters is indeed an apt description of what guides us all: we are all the result of causal processes, as are all our actions. As such, the destinity of Arren – and with him so much of literature’s and myths’ other characters – is a metaphor for determinism. And the prophecies in countless similar stories are ultimately a celebration of science: our ability to make predictions increases whenever our scientific understanding advances.

The problem is that Le Guin can’t put her finger on the nature of choice, just as I hinted at in my review of The Tombs Of Atuan. So she advocates acceptance, and being over doing, but nevertheless stresses the importance of making the right choice and discipline. You can’t have your cake and eat it, I’d say.

(...)


Full review here.

----


THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA - Ernest Hemingway (1952)

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature.

(...)

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, also her old man returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

(...)


Full review here.

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Re: great SF books

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3 new reviews. One hyped fantasy book, a Gibson, and an Iain (M.) Banks


PATTERN RECOGNITION - William Gibson (2003)

(...)

All this not to say Gibson wrote an irrelevant novel, on the contrary, Gibson wrote a novel that is very much of these times, dealing with topics – branding, globalization, originality, monoculture – that define big parts of our contemporary lives. It then doesn’t surprise that the Wikipedia page on Pattern Recognition is quite long, and even has quotes from postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson on the novel. Yes: Gibson is that kind of powerhouse, the kind that attracts the attention of a powerhouse like Jameson.

Mind you: all that doesn’t make for a particular deep novel – Gibson keeps it snappy and breezy, and he constructs a fairly standard thriller around the themes. He namedrops the term simulacra, but in the end there’s nothing new. Nevertheless, Gibson is able to convey the gradual take-over of sameness in the Western world, through the lens of Cayce Pollard, the story’s protagonist – a young woman with an almost supernatural feeling for cooperate symbols. She finds herself in the world where everything is “reduced, by the spectral hands of marketing, to price-point variations on the same thing.” There’s melancholy in Pattern Recognition, this particular Gibson not a champion of the New, but mournful for the loss of worlds that once were; fleeing to Tokyo and Moscow to give us a dose of something that still is different.

(...)


Full review here.

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SENLIN ASCENDS - Josiah Bancroft (2013, 2017)

(...)

While lots of reviewers rave about the prose, to me, it felt different. It’s generally okay for sure – it does the job telling an escapist story which main goal is entertainment – but it didn’t ring truthful to me. I guess I should not expect natural speech in a fantasy story like this, but there’s an artificiality to Bancroft’s wordiness that made me aware of the fact I was reading a 21st century book trying to masquerade as something set in a secondary world at the dawn of electricity.

Wordiness, yes. I found myself skimming a few times in the second half of the book, yet it seems I didn’t miss a thing. Following the story was no problem skipping whole paragraphs, just ogling sentences here and there to spot where I should slow down for real story development, instead of filler. The pacing is generally good, that’s not the problem, but overall you know what the expect the next few pages. I’m not saying the book on the whole is predictable, yet in its subsections, it often is.

(...)


Full review here.

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TRANSITION - Iain M. Banks (2009)

(...)

Although the book has a veneer of science fiction – using many-world science as a starting point – there’s actually zero consistent science in the book. The mind-body problem is just sidestepped – a bit like in Altered Carbon – and used inconsistently to be able to do something gimmicky with OCD and with polyglotism. In this sense, Transition is like a 21st century version of all that laughable telepathy focused scifi of the 50ies and 60ies.

Similarly, there’s a veneer of deep thought and philosophy: solipsism gets some pages, but it’s not that interesting – maybe if you’re 15 it is. It’s all painting by numbers. Let’s try this insightful passage as an example:

"He did recall, despite the pulsings of such concentrated extended pleasure, that there were people who existed in a state of perpetual sexual arousel, coming to orgasm continually, through the most trivial, ordinary and frequent physical triggers and experiences. It sounded like utter bliss, the sort of thing drunk friends roared with envious laughter over towards the end of an evening, but the unfunny truth was that, in its most acute form, it was a severe and debilitating medical condition. The final proof that it was so was that many people who suffered from it took their own lives. Bliss – pure physical rapture – could become absolutely unbearable."

DEEP – BLISS – DEEP!!!

Themes are typical hedonist Banks: lots of sex, some drugs. He opens the book explicitly by embedding the setting between the fall of the Berlin wall, 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis. That seems promising at first, as Banks does it with quite some aplomb, but sadly none of the political stuff is explored – except for some asides about torture (in an interview he said to have Guantanamo in mind) and a few rants against capitalism. There’s also the typical stuff about those that have superpowers and try to influence reality for the better, and that power corrupting… you’ve read it all before.

(...)


Full review here.

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Re: great SF books

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the new Stephenson...


FALL OR, DODGE IN HELL - Neal Stephenson (2019)

(...)

Stephenson’s attempt at a digital translation of mythological source material has merit, especially at first, as Dodge’s creation of his digital world fittingly resembles how gamers in the 90ies explored new worlds in the dark mist on the maps on their screens. He even manages to convincingly sneak in Adam & Eve. But as the story progresses, it starts to suffer, from being both overthought and haphazard. While certain choices Stephenson made in the book’s first 650 pages are weaved together nicely (Corvus, the amputee girlfriend, the daisy), all that nifty literary construction doesn’t redeem the novel. The inconsistencies I described ultimately kill the intellectual joy we were offered at first.

(...)

It strikes me as a sign of the times that some liberal Stephenson readers take issue with his condescension. The truth is out there: climate change is real & man-made, vaccines don’t cause autism, the earth isn’t flat and we did land on the moon. In the 60ies, Kurt Vonnegut would have written satire on these people too, and it would be applauded. Today, we cry foul. It’s one thing for Hillary Clinton to call out a basket of deplorables while running for president, Neal Stephenson has a different job to do: he doesn’t write for people in what the novel calls Ameristan.

(...)

Full review here

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Re: great SF books

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a bestseller this time...

RECURSION - Blake Crouch (2019)

Dark Matter was excellent: yes, it was light & fun, a thriller, but it was also a truly clever story in a multiverse setting that didn’t short circuit logically. Blake Crouch tried to emulate that succesful formula again in his latest book, this time using time travel as a way to conjure up multiple versions of reality.

Just to get things out of the way: while Recursion starts promising, halfway the book it becomes clear this really is pulp of the worst sort. Blake pulls the quantum card casually – using just a few sentences – trying to justify nonsense: generally a good tell to spot bluffing.

Sadly, it only gets worse after that, utterly failing at inner consistency – even though Blake flashes “Clifford Johnson, Ph.D., professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern California” in the acknowledgments. Clifford “provided valuable insight in the final stages of the manuscript.” Blake talked to some professor: the hallmark of serious science fiction! But obviously, “all mistakes, assumptions, and crazy theories are mine alone”. You see: even the acknowledgments are riddled with cliché. When Blake near the end of the novel suddenly jerks “micro black holes”, wormholes and muons out of his hat, it becomes clear Clifford didn’t save the novel from being preposterous.

(...)

Maybe he could have done better, but – like Hollywood blockbusters – Crouch clearly values tension & spectacle over logic. My guess is he doesn’t care about plot holes – and neither does his editor: shit like this sells, man! I wouldn’t have held that against Crouch – it’s everybody’s prerogative to aim for entertainment first – were it not for the fact that at the onset of the book he explicitly sneaks in some meta bits about solving puzzles, two times even. If you portray your story as a puzzle to solve, make sure the pieces fit.

(....)

Rather than write a lentghy analysis about the mess that is the plot, I will end this review with a few questions. Maybe I didn’t think things through. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is an explanation for what I perceive to be inconsistencies. So this next section is mainly for those of you who have read the book. Any answers in the comments would be appreciated.

(...)

Full review here

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Re: great SF books

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I tackled the big one this time... a 5500 word write up of the second time I read Dune.

DUNE - Frank Herbert (1965)

(...)

I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined.

At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control.

As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem – already acknowledged centuries ago by numerous strands of religious Predestination.

Recurrent readers of this blog know that I tend to find examples of this in many of the books I read. I believe the problem is the very bleeding heart of tragedy. It will not surprise you it is the core of Dune.

Recurrent readers of other Dune reviews will have found the usual references to other themes: environmentalism, ecology, oil, “critique of the myth of the hero” and religious fanaticism. It’s what keeps this book fresh, they claim. It’s about the Middle East! It’s about climate change! Etc. And while such claims definitely have merit, they miss the essential thing. The central theme is Paul’s prescience – and how this is tied to determinism. It is that what keeps the book fresh forever: it grounds Dune firmly in a reality we will never escape.

Dune is an ecological book, indeed, but not only in the Greenpeace way. Dune stresses the importance of ecology: the environment, conditions, surroundings, milieu, external factors, what have you. Factors that determine the way organisms succeed or not, that restrain their evolution, and that – ultimately – guide their internal make up.

The imperial planetary ecologist Liet-Kynes – arguably the most wise of all of Dune‘s characters, and the grandfather of the later God-Emperor – knows this: “When God hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place, He causeth that creature’s wants to direct him to that place.”

(...)

Full review here

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Re: great SF books

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My analysis of the Dune series continues... another 4500+ word article on Dune Messiah, focusing on the differences with Dune, the ties with Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence and, yet again, prescience and determinism.

DUNE MESSIAH - Frank Herbert (1969)

(...)

I’ll try to keep this text under 5000 words, so that’ll be all for the introduction. In what follows, I first compare Dune Messiah to its big brother: why exactly is it a lesser book? That part is the proper review, so to say.

Afterwards, I’ll zoom in on a few things for those interested in a deeper analysis. I’ll first write about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero. I’ll finish with a discussion determinism & free will in Dune Messiah – even though I’m starting to feel I’m beating a dead horse on this blog, especially after my massive post on the same subject and Lord of the Rings. The last two parts will be heavy with quotes.

(...)

Full analysis on Weighing A Pig

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Re: great SF books

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A NEW FAVORITE!

GREG EGAN - SCHILD'S LADDER (2002)

(...)

I used to think the Culture of Iain M. Banks represented the creative pinnacle of imagining a transhumanist future, but consider that position revised: it seems Egan has picked up the baton a long time ago.

(...)

Full review here.

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Re: great SF books

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4 new SF posts on Weighing A Pig:

EXHALTATION - Ted Chiang (2008)

(...)

This time the main focus is on neuroscience, and the debate on the classic boxological Theory Of Mind: do our brains have representations of their content inside their brains, or not? The Nobel Prize winning research by Kandel and O’Keefe & the Mosers on rats has proven the classic T.o.M. wrong, and Chiang has managed to translate that into a kind of steampunk-ish robot setting. At least, that’s my guess, as I haven’t read any author notes. I know Chiang included those in this first collection, but I’m not sure if they exist for this particular story. (If they do exist, and somebody could prove or disprove my hypothesis in the comments, that would be great.)

The other focus is a classic cosmology conundrum: is our universe finite, and will it get to a final (dead) state of equilibrium? He cleverly inserts a bit of speculation about possible multiverses too.

(...)

full review here

------
THE MAN IN THE MAZE - Robert Silverberg (1969)

(...)

So what we get is a strange hybrid: on the one hand a kind of technological action feast, with the maze itself as a protagonist, and on the other hand a psychological study of those three characters, and how they interact. The alien mysteries that Silverberg set up work really well to keep the tension going, but in the end they turn out to be a sideshow only, and ultimately they are underdeveloped – as I said: they would get 100 pages per alien race extra if this book would have been written today.

So now that we have whittled it down to the 2 main dishes: are they tasty?

(...)

full review here

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THE WILD SHORE - Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

(...)

Partly coming of age story, the narrator is the 17-year-old Hank Fletcher, who lives in a small community of about 60 people that try to make by in 2047, about 6 decades after a nuclear attack sent The United States back to a pre-industrial setting, with isolated communities of survivors scattered across the land. And even while The Wild Shore has a subtle hint of space lasers, at times it reminded me of the similarly low tech Shaman – there’s a great paper to be written on how the themes of both books relate.

Information is key in the novel. Just like the readers, the characters are in the dark about what happened. They are also in the dark about what is happening, for Robinson shows glimpses of a bigger narrative in world politics in the aftermath of the attack – but characters nor readers get to know its true extent. It is a clever narrative device, maximizing the reader’s empathy with the characters: we share uncertainty and frustration about it. It is especially clever because – like the readers – the characters do know about what once was: trains, electricity, hospitals, national pride, and general literacy.

(...)

full review here

------
UBIK - Philip K. Dick (1969)

When I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 5 years ago, I approached it the wrong way. That novel is full of plot holes & other inconsistencies, and while I appreciated the mood, I ended up being bothered by its mushy core. I decided to not make the same mistake for Ubik, and see if a go-with-the-flow attitude would yield another reading experience.

Being who I am, I still ended up writing down numerous inconsistencies, but indeed, they did not really bother me. Maybe that is because Ubik simply is a much better novel, I don’t know: I’d have to reread Androids, and that’s not going to happen.

A bit before I started Ubik, I read a review on Calmgrove that determined my reading experience this time. It hinted at Serious Levels of Depth, and that provided the novel with lots of my credit upfront. It made me go down another rabbit hole this time: in search for truths about life & death.

For the uninitiated: Ubik is a strange novel, in which Dick draws back the curtain numerous times, only to close it a bit later on. It involves time travel – or not?, strange temporal digressions, merged states of half-life, a conflict between two psychic mutant factions, a trip to the moon and capitalist consumerism satire. An American-made Kafka: light in calories, and with a dose of cigarettes, X-Men & half-baked religion.

(...)
full review here

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Re: great SF books

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THE GODS THEMSELVES - Isaac Asimov (1972)

(...)

The title comes from a quote from a Friedrich Schiller play: "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain", and it is a clear indication of what Asimov wanted to do with this book: issue a warning against human vanity & stupidity. The central theme - humanity's destructive & myopic greed for energy - resonates strongly today in this age of climate change. Seen in that light, the book has not aged a day - on the contrary, it has only grown more potent.

The Gods Themselves is necessary reading for any serious Asimov fan: the creative pluses outweigh the negatives I talked about, and the prose doesn't get in the way. It's also recommended to anyone with an interest in vintage science fiction. Still, it lacks the awe and the scope of the Foundation trilogy, and as such it lacks a bit of oomph. Dated a bit, yes, but still very readable. Nonetheless, I have to be honest, and warn you that it is only of minor interest for those that crave thrilling sci fi that pushes all of today's buttons.


Full review on Weighing A Pig

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Re: great SF books

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SOLARIS - Stanisław Lem (1961)

(...)

It’s curious that our relation to alien intelligence isn’t upfront in the movies, but then again, maybe it is not. I thought the strongest suit of Solaris was the character of Harey – or ‘Rheya’ in the translation I read. She is quite an invention. How would you define the personhood of something that springs out of existence from an alien entity’s registration of another person’s memories – a body without memories of her own life except through the eyes of that other? Her trajectory and growing self-awareness is painted only sketchily, but it is a very powerful portrait nonetheless.

As such, Solaris – to me – was not about mental problems or the lonely hell of a space station with a spooked skeleton crew. It is a story about lost love. Kris Kelvin’s relation to Harey is the major emotional draw of the book, and it is understandable that directors chose that focus over philosophy. At the same time, Lem implicitly asks a very hard question: what do we love? A person? Or a body? Maybe such dichotomies are false. Or maybe that question is the same question Snaut (‘Snow’) asks about halfway in the book: “What is a normal man?”

(...)


Full review here, on Weighing A Pig

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Re: great SF books

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A deserved classic - don't be fooled by the movie!

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS - John Wyndham (1954)

(...)

Whatever Wyndham’s soldier status, there is an amount of carnage & corpses in The Day of the Triffids – although generally subdued, and mainly visible out of the corner of the eye. Death might not be the focus of the book, Wyndham nevertheless manages to evoke its terror, precisely by understating the human costs: Mason digs a grave only once, “a very small one”, for a 4-year old boy.

Not a horror story, and not really about a battle with strange green creatures, what then is the focus of this book? Seminal science fiction influencer David Pringle missed the mark big time, when he wrote “it would be a mistake to stress the ‘moral’ in what is first and foremost an exciting escapist romp.”

Yes, it is an exciting adventure story, but it is only so successful because Wyndham grounds it in convincing moral choices and nuanced emotions. Bill Mason encounters very different reactions to what’s happening, including those of himself, and it is this social kaleidoscope that keeps the book relevant today.


(...)

Full review on Weighing A Pig

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Re: great SF books

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Third post in my long reads on my reread of the Dune series:


CHILDREN OF DUNE - Frank Herbert (1976)

“The landscape which met their gaze was beyond pity, nowhere did it pause – no hesitations in it at all.”

There is something relentless to Children of Dune. It was the most difficult hurdle yet in my project of rereading the entire series.

It is a bit of a surprise this became “the first hardcover best-seller ever in the science fiction field” and also won the 1977 Hugo, because there is undeniably truth in David Pringle’s assessment of the book being “convoluted stuff.”

There’s a paradox to this very review and how it determined my reading experience, and it has to do with that convolutedness. Because I knew I wanted to write this text, I read Children carefully – maybe too carefully, taking notes, trying to figure things out. Especially in the second half of the book, that left me gasping for air at times, unable to figure out what Herbert wanted to do, lost in the mystical ramblings about visions and futures, focusing on inconsistencies or what I thought were inconsistencies. It took a bit of joy out of reading.

At the same time, I did like the overall plot a lot, and could see Herbert had actually managed to tell yet another great story with perfect pacing, especially when the action kicked in: his characteristic style of cutting between short scenes with lots of dialogue somehow delivered the goods again. All that left me with about a 3 out of 5 stars tally, a bit in line with when I first read the series, and I then thought book 2 and 3 were the weakest of the six.

But when I started to reread (and reread and reread) all the quotes I had marked to get a better grip on the book’s difficult stuff, I actually understood more of it, and most inconsistencies dissolved. So yes, this review at times wrecked my reading – instead of just riding the flow, I focused too much on trying to understand – but in the end it also reconciled me with the book. That leaves me with a 3.5, maybe 4 star rating, because I still think Herbert could have cut back some on the mystic philosophy, without actually hurting its core.

In what follows, I first tried to write something of a review of the book: strengths, weaknesses, characters, you know the drill. I primarily focus on Alia as tragic figure, and also discuss an important thing that remains unclear & possibly inconsistent: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path.

For those that want to dive in even deeper, after that first part, I zoom in on four very specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience.

Both parts are a spoiler bonanza, but I guess this kind of writing will not appeal to those who haven’t read the books anyway.

The text is heavy with quotes, but I wrote it so that you can still follow the logic if you skip them – except once, and I’ll warn you there. The quotes are for the die-hards. I had 9504 words selected out of the book, of which I used about 6200. Add to that my own 4400 words, and abracadabra …another long read, totaling 10630 words. It is what it is, I couldn’t help it. A full, thorough discussion of the book needed those.

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Re: great SF books

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This year's Hugo winner


A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE - Arkady Martine (2019)

Arkady Martine’s debut novel just won the 2020 Hugo and is shortlisted for the Clarke, so indeed, it has all the hallmarks of what people seem to like: a picture of a sprawling throne on the cover, and a “glossary of persons, places and objects” at the end.

There’s much to like in this book, especially a “cunningly plotted” story of palace intrigue centered around the new ambassador of a mining station in the capital city of the galaxy spanning Teixcalaanli empire – an empire that loves literature and poetry, and an empire in the midst of a succession crisis.

So let me be upfront: this was an okay book, a nice book, an entertaining book, a Tor book, and I’d even recommend it if you need your contemporary space opera fix. But at the same time, it was very, very generic. Maybe that calls for a checklist?

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EMPIRE – Indeed, empire. It’s even in the title! What an easy target imperialism has become. Sadly, the Teixcalaanli empire is never menacing, it never shows its teeth. It is supposed to be a remorseless, planet gulping military machine, yet the Emperor is a friendly old man that managed peace for 80 years. The fact that Lesl Station – the home of our protagonist Mahit Dzmare and 30,000 other souls – managed to remain independent for decades only shows that the Teixcalaan aren’t the boogeyman. To Martine’s credit, the book does portray a believable form of cultural imperialism, but it’s seen only through Mahit’s eyes, and as she is a Teixcalanophile that again kinda removes the sting. At the end, I was rooting for the Emperor, and I never felt the opposition between Lesl & Teixcalaan – part of that is the fact that Lesl Station is never fleshed out. The same goes for Teixcalaan: while it does feature the outskirts of the Shiny City & its proletariat once, the book firmly focuses on the elite. As social or political critique it does not work, because Martine seems more fascinated with the Imperial Court and its mother-of-pearl exotica flower inlays.

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GLOSSARY – Every self-respecting speculative fiction book on a vast, ancient culture needs one, but this one is more marketing than necessary. I consulted it only twice, and even in those two cases I didn’t really need to, had I waited a few pages for clarification. It even has the name of the protagonist, just to point out the level of redundancy it has just to beef up its page count.

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Re: great SF books

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Two classics...


A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ - Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

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At the same time, much of these questions are only interesting for readers that adhere to a belief in a personal god yet struggle with injustice & sorrow. If you don’t believe in god – or if your particular belief system manages to explain human sorrow to your satisfaction – most of the questions the book puts forward are moot. As such, the book has not aged very well – the number of people that embrace a traditional theistic world view has dwindled and will continue to dwindle.

That absolutely doesn’t mean the book has no merit left, as even without the moral-religious questions, A Canticle works as a character study. It is about (religious) men trying to make sense of their world, trying to hold or improve their positions, amidst conflict, degeneration, revival and looming extinction. Scenes like the one in which a mutant, double headed woman forgives god himself are powerful, whatever your religious inclinations are.

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TEHANU - Ursula Le Guin (1990)

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It's commonly known Le Guin wrote this book partly to rectify the gender imbalance in the initial trilogy, and in the fantasy genre in general. Indeed: wizards and mages are Men, and females with magical powers generally are foul witches or servile priestesses. The medieval setting of most fantasy stories is filled with patriarchy and Kings - nobody needs to be convinced of that. So yes, in today's parlance, Tehanu is woke - but not fully woke, as I'll try to explain.

Before I write a bit on the book's political issues, let me try to give an overall appraisal of Tehanu, without spoiling the first three books.

(...)



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Re: great SF books

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An older hard SF classic, and the brand new KSR.


QUARANTINE - Greg Egan (1992)

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What starts as a detective set in 2067 quickly turns into a head spinning novel about the possible existential effects of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – more specifically the consciousness causes collapse variant. In short: humans observing stuff limits the number of possible worlds.

If you thought the popcorn sci-fi of Dark Matter was hard, well, this is the real deal. On the other hand, compared to the only other Egan I’ve read so far – the brilliant Schild’s Ladder – this is an easier, more accessible book.

The first half is smooth reading: Nick Stavrianos, a hardboiled PI, investigates a kidnapping/closed room mystery. The specifics of the setting – Earth quarantined by “an impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system” in 2034 – seem a cool yet inconsequential backdrop at first. It’s brilliant how Egan manages to weld the two mysteries together.

The same goes for the other science fictional thing Quarantine features: mental modifications people install in their brains via nanobots. Again seemingly gimmicky in the first half of the book, it nonetheless gives the detective story a futuristic, exciting edge that would not be out of place in a Hollywood action flick.

But as the story progresses (...)

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THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE - Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)

“This discursive battle, it’s very important.”

This is it. The final big KSR novel. I dreaded starting it, to be honest. Yet another climate book: don’t we know that story? His two previous ones were letdowns: New York 2140 was okay, but ultimately transparent, and Red Moon even formulaic: Stan seemed to have run out of steam.

I think Robinson’s decision to stop writing long novels liberated him. And so his final big one is both a synthesis and a departure, and most importantly: totally unapologetic KSR, and a feast as such. It’s also a paradox, a book that is “desperate and hopeful in equal measure”, as the dust jacket has it.

Some might think it not enough of a novel – a long essay perhaps. Some might think it boring, or preachy. I think none of that applies. I think it’s brave, fast-paced, and subdued. It’s a story for sure, and it builds on the legacy of that other great science fiction novel: 1930s Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. I loved The Ministry for the Future.

The only criticism I can muster might be that Robinson’s hope might be non-sequiturish, so to say. Aren’t we doomed anyway? Who knows? Who will tell? “There are many realities on a planet this big.”

In the remainder of this review – about 3000 words – I will elaborate on all of the above, backed up by quite a few fragments from various recent interviews with KSR. It’s a joy to have a writer being so open & explicit about his thought process.
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