Alastair Reynolds – Absolution Gap (2003) Review

Absolution Gap

  • Genre: science fiction
  • series: Revelation Space 3 (or 4)
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Numerous negative reviews online had scared me away from buying this book for the longest time. But a feeling that I should continue Clavain’s story nagged at me, and a few hundred pages in I’m very satisfied with my purchase. Absolution Gap has many elements that I would not have wanted to miss.

Absolution Gap brings us back to the story of Scorpio and Nevil Clavain, who is more or less the main character of the Revelation Space series. When we last saw him in Redemption Ark, he was a confident, badass character, in an old man sort of way. Having lived for a few hundred years already, and having accrued a number of heartaches and enemies along the way, Clavain was a soft-spoken, centered and commanding character and much more sympathetic than Dan Sylveste in Revelation Space.

Redemption Ark ended with him and Scorpio the hyperpig and a hundred thousand survivors of Resurgam stranded on an out-of-the-way planet. Clavain’s enemies and allies were still on their way towards him, but space travel being what it is, it took them another few decades to reach Clavain. In the meantime, him and the survivors started their own colony. Now we find Clavain as a moody recluse, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode 8 living on an island. But after 20 years of rest, the war between the Conjoiners and the Inhibitors has arrived on their doorstep.

We also follow two new storylines that are quite interesting on their own, but if you’re primarily interested in the continuing story of Clavain you’ll need to practice some patience at the start. Horris Quaiche is a prospector for the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension. The lives of him and his girlfriend Morwenna depend on Quaiche finding riches, and he discovers alien artifacts on a faraway moon. Another storyline is set on that same moon, but a hundred years later. The inhabitants follow the Quaicheist religion and pilgrims flock to the moon to observe the mysterious vanishing of a nearby gas giant.

Reynolds’ writing style has definitely improved compared to Revelation Space. The prose flows easier and the descriptions don’t grind down the storytelling too much, as they did once. And while Revelation Space was a smorgasbord of every little futuristic idea that Reynolds could cram into a single novel, by Absolution Gap the story has slowed down and gained focus.

It’s the plot that’s questionable. Reynolds never was one for three-act or five-act story arcs, and Redemption Ark already had odd turns in its story and strange accelerations and stretched-out parts and, most of all, lacked a sense of conclusion. Absolution Gap has all the same issues. For a space opera there is not a lot of space travel here. Everyone just mostly stays put on their planets and I was hoping for some more movement, action and technological wonder. That is not to say that the planet-bound stories here are without memorable scenes, and the Conjoiners are still my favourite cyborgs.

The Conjoiners, yes, I find it very interesting how Reynolds describes their mental architecture. The speed of their thought and their computerized way of thinking are described very explicitly. It feels futuristic even 15 years after publication. (Has it been that long?  I still find every novel published after 2000 to be “recent”.) The society on Hela is also very imaginative. The whole deal with indoctrinal viruses, blood inquisition and moving cathedrals is a thing of creative brilliance. Particularly the story on Hela and the building feeling of dread that humanity is being wiped out system by system are fine additions to the Revelation Space series.

Looking back at the whole Revelation Space series, I find the whole greater than its parts. All the individual novels have their flaws. Revelation Space was written clunkily and overstuffed; Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap were unevenly plotted and lacked resolution. And the overarching storyline had no focus, many loose ends and effectively need a collection of short stories to finish up nicely. Clavain was thrown into Redemption Ark without a proper introduction, and the resolution to Absolution Gap and the whole series can be found in another short story.

But the Revelation Space universe is just so cool. It has a gothic atmosphere of the grotesque, built upon a bleak idea of unforgiving space. We follow its societies over the course of hundreds of years, from science that we can still understand towards more and more stranger futuristic concepts as the centuries go by. Almost every SF concept is represented in this universe and clicks together in a wholly unique vision. The series remains Reynolds’ best work.

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Steven Pinker – Enlightenment Now (2018) Review

enlightenment now

“My attempt is to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century.”

That’s Steven Pinker’s own stated goal for this book, which is sort of a sequel to his highly appreciated book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). That book quite convincingly (in my opinion) showed how violence, in almost all its appearances, has declined over the centuries and decades, and how we are now living in the safest age that there ever was. Pinker now continues this discussion on the leading ideas and ideologies behind all this human progress, and expands his topics from violence to all sorts of important metrics of progress and happiness.

So, the ideals of the Enlightenment. And he holds them up against todays trend in politics of looking backwards and against the permanent state of fear and crisis that modern media fuels in us. And instead of simply repeating what 18th and 19th century philosophers have once said, he takes “data” as the language of today. Trying his best to quantify his story, Pinker wants to provide evidence for the positive effects of two centuries of Enlightenment ideals on the quality of our lives.

In a short but very lucid first part, Pinker quickly sets down where we are as a species, how we are trying to survive in this universe and how the ideas of science and humanism impacted the way we think about these matters. Like a very short summary of Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus and written in the same conversational, eloquent way.

Before saying that this is a worthwhile book that might change your outlook on the modern world, I have some criticism to state.

The bulk of the book sounds like a TED talk by Hans Rosling. In about 75 or so graphs, Pinker shows how the world has become a better place in many, many ways, but really, all of this content sounds divorced from the political frame of championing “the case for reason”. Most chapters don’t even use the words “reason” or “humanism” or make a strong link to what the introduction said is the main topic of the book. In fact, it boggles my mind why he framed his book as a case for Enlightenment, as he could have just titled it “Why the world is getting better” or something of that sort.

It pains me to notice that Pinker has become more and more… political. His earlier books were much more focused on science alone, but for his new book he provides a political justification in that he feels the ideals of the enlightenment to be under attack. Not for nothing does the second title start with “The case for…” He cites American presidents and becomes more outspoken and salty against religion. I hope that Pinker is not going down the same path as Richard Dawkins went, who also wrote some brilliant scientific books earlier in his career but then turned into a harsh activist. Neither Dawkins nor Pinker approach political and religious topics with the sensitivity that, say, Carl Sagan showed, and I wish they would just go back to pure science communication. That might even make Pinker’s point stronger, because arguing from a political standpoint just raises mistrust.

But that’s my personal opinion, because I don’t like science being muddled up with political aims. Prof. Pinker can of course shape his career any way he likes. I suppose my greatest criticism is that the shell of social commentary around the scientific core feels too blunt, with too much historical framing and a dismissal of everything that isn’t “reasonable” as “folly”. It is, however, just as much a humanist thought that people are free to give meaning to their lives whatever way they see fit.

In any case, Pinker takes his claim of reason being under attack as self-evident, and doesn’t direct his research towards that, and to me that is another sign of the book making overblown statements for marketability. It is also very American-centered. The world has never delivered so many scientists and educated people.

His chapters on income inequality and the environment are bound to be the most controversial. Here he doesn’t want to claim that all trends are positive, but wants to present other ways of looking at them. Inequality in itself, he explains, is not necessarily a bad thing, and taking the larger global view, living standards as a whole have raised. The future is however very uncertain for many lower income families.

As someone who holds a PhD in environmental sciences, there are trends that Pinker brushes over that cannot be fixed. For my own work I have often cited ecological analyses that show endless downward trends in biodiversity everywhere; the mass extinction is well underway, both on land in the sea. When species are lost, they are practically lost forever. On top of that, Pinker talks about acceptable levels of degradation and pollution, while tastelessly mocking the idea of sustainability on the next page. But all that pollution isn’t going to fix itself if our ecosystems lose their resilience to those impacts. Also, the effects of climate change make all these issues even more pressing.

I get the impression that the scientific research in this book is nevertheless solid and up to date, if somewhat cherry-picked, but the scope is so enormous that Pinker hardly escapes dealing in generalizations. You could write a book about each chapter (which Pinker has already done with the topic of violence and war and that turned out a massive tome), so it is hard to make his arguments very explicit, and the decades of scientific research underlying many conclusions are not visible, unfortunately. The result is the feeling that a professor is lecturing about the way things are, and we have to take much of the generalizations on authority (he does mention his sources, of course).

But Pinker makes some really good points. And it is not as if he came up with all these graphs and conclusions himself; all he did was collecting the data and referring to what other people have already concluded in their own respective fields of research. He wouldn’t want people to take it on his authority, because that is exactly the sort of fussy thinking that he rails against. What Pinker adds through this book is the grand overview. The impression that so much has been improving indeed, and the historical causes are openly available for investigation. But for many of these topics I find it much more valuable to look at “recent” causes than to look two centuries back to the start of the Enlightenment, and every problem has its own particular solutions which only came to light in the last century. True, science and a sense of compassion underlie many of those solutions, so I wholeheartedly agree with Pinker that we should support these.

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Paddington 2 (2017) Review

Paddington 2


When I first saw the trailer for Paddington (2014), the first movie, I didn’t think well of it. It looked like a very childish movie, obviously marketed to children, employing some cheap CGI to make a quick buck. However, when I saw the movie on a whim, it turned out to be much better than I anticipated. Paddington was a heartwarming tale of a simple, gentlemanly bear stuck in a very English place with very English people. The story was uplifting and the humour was restrained, and Paddington himself was just such a decent character that you couldn’t help root for him.

It kind of reminded me of the movie Lady in the Van (2015) with Maggie Smith, in which common English people are forced to deal with a mad woman living on their grounds. In that movie too, the magic of “English decency” made everyone extremely flummoxed by their strange cohabitant, but since everyones politeness forbade them to do anything rash about it, the mad lady was accepted in the end. Paddington had a similar premise and vibe. Introduce a strange character into an English family and watch everyone be confused till Paddington is accepted and embraced.

In Paddington 2, our bear wants to buy a present for his ageing aunt who lives in the jungle. He finds a nice pop-up book that he wants to buy her, but he has no money. That is by the way a very creative scene with impressive animation; all animation is really well done here. That leads to a whole series of “adventures” in which Paddington tries out various jobs. At one occasion he mentions his plan to a washed-up actor (Hugh Grant in a hilariously scene-chewing role). Grant then steals the pop-up book and good-natured Paddington gets framed for it. All this happens within the first 25 minutes, so you can imagine that the pace of the film is fast. Never a dull moment for Paddington.

Paddington 2 is above all inventive. The pace stays high, which means that there is a lot of sheer storytelling material here. The film never shies away from giving little comedic flashbacks or little montages to liven things up, even though that must have inflated the costs of production and the sheer time and effort in making the film. Hugh Grant is also a highlight, a great villain and rather twisted in the head. Grant plays him as a flamboyant, theatrical and tragic figure with a winning grin, showing, ironically, that his career is far from over.

There is a palpable sense that a very dedicated crew stood behind this film that spared no effort to give everyone an enjoyable evening. You kind of have to give in to it and allow yourself to enjoy something that on the surface looks a bit childish. But if you can do this, then the film keeps giving.

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Phantom Thread (2017) Review

Phantom Thread


Walking out of this movie, I felt both uncomfortable and strangely delighted. It is a supremely weird movie, but in a way, it makes sense. On an emotional level, there is a strange logic to it.

I suppose, the way people feel about themselves determines how they feel about love, and what a relationship means to them. This movie plays around with that idea, embodies it, and tries to see how far this idea can be stretched. People who have great trouble opening up in a relationship might still pair up with those who are more willing to give and support, and stretching this idea all the way to the extremes of mental health problems, then relationships can twist and turn into a dynamic that only the people locked inside may still accept. When that happens, partners may have their emotional issues click together as two pieces of a puzzle.

The terrific Daniel Day Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a very demanding, difficult man. As we discover, he has arranged his entire life according to strict rules and regimes. His entire life is like a fortified castle or a spinning engine, with no room to spare for any partner. Yet, he still falls in love now and then, and he casts spells of glamour on people, so to say, for he is a very handsome, confident and talented man who fraternizes with royalty and designs dresses.

As the film progresses, we learn that he himself keeps all these walls up, because deep inside is a lonely, grieving man. His sister Cyril in fact runs his business and pretty much his life. She’s hardly a human being, so little emotion does she show, but she may understand her brother like no other.

In comes Alma (Vicky Krieps), a small-town waitress who falls in love with Reynolds and he with her. She totally sacrifices her own life, her own person, to fit into the fortress that is Reynolds’ life. She tries to get him to react, to open up, by giving a lot. She takes care, she tries lovely gestures, but Reynolds is hard and cold as ice. Here we see the dynamic in play between the two: the avoidant lover and the anxious one. The movie never goes into Alma’s past, but the very fact that she stays with Reynolds as long as she does practically demands that she has her own baggage. It is hard to watch, but that blanket of English poshness that overlays it also creates a dry humor about it.

It takes her a long while before she finally starts rebelling, in scenes that are very satisfying to watch. The only way she can find to crack Reynolds’ walls and with that disrupt his entire business, I won’t spoil for you, but it is rather dramatic and unusual. By the end, the two lovers have indeed changed their dynamic in a way that is both very liberating for the both of them, but rather unsettling for us viewers. So, I hope you see why I left the movie feeling both uncomfortable and happy. Love takes all shapes, as long as people are happy, but uncomfortable relationships make me uncomfortable in return.

It’s a beautifully shot film, full of subtle acting and strong characters. It’s a bit slow, especially in the first half, but the story goes to places that you wouldn’t expect. It might not be the film that you’d think it is at first. It is impossible to categorize.



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The Shape of Water (2017) Review

The shape of water


I love the sense of focus and energy behind this film. You get the sense that everything about the film, from the sets to the camera movement to the acting to the music… everything has passed meticulous care and attention. So, the film is beautifully crafted, and it is also very full. It has a frantic energy to it that reminded me a lot of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie, and like that movie, The Shape of Water sticks to certain color schemes and themes to create a very specific feeling. I think that that feeling is that the whole movie plays out under water. All the colors are blue and greenish and teal, and water itself is everywhere in this film.

Also like Amelie and like Del Toro’s earlier film Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water has this fairy-tale sentimentality. This is of course felt in the main storyline of a woman falling in love with a swamp creature. It’s Beauty and the Beast, sort of. But also in the sense that nothing feels entirely realistic. The 50s world is a hyperrealistic exaggeration with the feeling of the Fallout games, and all the emotions are stronger, heightened, pure. The villain is extra villainous, and the love that rises in Elisa is the sort of all-consuming love, which is taken a lot farther than I expected.

With that immense attention to detail and with those powerful, pure emotions, you get a film that truly cares about the experiences of its viewers. Granted, a Michael Bay film also cares about your experience, but Del Toro’s films do so in a way that is so much more intelligent and meticulous.

What also felt quite refreshing to me is that this is a fairy tale starring adults. If The Shape of Water had starred a little girl, like in Pan’s Labyrinth, I believe it would not have been nominated for all those Oscars, but had been labeled as a children’s film. Happily, Sally Hawkins is an enormous asset as the mute woman Elisa. She brings real emotion and believability, and some scenes where she tries her utmost to communicate her strong feelings are very gripping and impossible to look away from. She is surrounded by a cast of adults who are so used to talking about their own lives all the time, that they do all the talking for her.

Doug Jones reprises his role as Abe from the Hellboy films, but a more animalistic version. He appears in so many of Del Toro’s films that he is by now immediately recognizable by his body language alone. He is a great physical actor but doesn’t have much to work with. He is, instead, a catalyst, an object of fascination around which the human characters revolve. Besides being the Beast to Elisa’s Belle, he is also the E.T. to Elisa’s Elliot.

The story is predictable, but that doesn’t matter. Most fantasy stories are predictable, and the joy and the art lies in how a writer deals with expectations. The Shape of Water gives what you would expect, and much more besides, in a very solidly, intelligently told story with beautiful production design. Even the villain has a family life; just one of those extra touches that you don’t expect to be there, but puts more meat on the bones of the story.

This film can be mentioned in one breath with Del Toro’s best films, and even may be his best.

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Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings (2008) Review

last argument of kings

  • Series: First Law, book 3
  • Genre: epic fantasy / grimdark
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Last argument of kings starts out a bit rough, and it has to do with Abercrombie’s odd plotting. The third book finds us at a strange crossroads in the story, where the entire quest of the second book, Before They Are Hanged (2007), fizzled out to nothing. Our characters all find themselves back home and are like: “well, I guess that happened. What do we do now?”

And the answers to that question aren’t all that exciting at first. Jezal deals with the mercurial Ardee and is sent out to fight some off-screen rebellion which suddenly sneaked into the story. This is hardly as interesting as the two big wars in the north and south. Glokta blackmails Lords about casting votes, which is a lot less interesting than his work for the inquisition. In short, can we please go back to the interesting parts of the story, with plotting that matters?

Ah, but then the pieces click together and the novel truly starts! Long running plotlines that began two books back now finally reveal themselves. Jezal’s story moves to very interesting places and Bayaz is there with his machinations to direct it all. And Logen finally turns towards confrontations in the north that have been promised to us a long time ago. Abercrombie’s plotting now feels a lot less random. Now that not only the characters are strong and believable, but the story also makes me tense up, I feel totally involved.

I love the direction he took this story in. We get treated to brutal, nerve-wracking sieges that are documented in gory detail over multiple chapters. Jezal transforms from an arrogant weaselly mooncalf into a sympathetic guy who’s in way over his head. Just about every chapter is juicy, and as always, Abercrombie’s brilliant character voicing really shines, especially with all these hardened and mental people.

Once the story starts speeding up after the first quarter, the pace it maintains is exhilarating. I’m impressed with how much storytelling Abercrombie gets done in a fantasy novel of average size. What’s still strange though is his plotting. There are a couple of plotlines going on, but Abercrombie settles them so that this novel seems to contain three novellas that follow up on each other. Other writers would have the climaxes overlap, but here we have a series of build-ups and climaxes throughout the novel with lulls in between. The third part is essentially 300 pages of tightly-plotted mayhem. Very satisfying.

Looking back at the entire trilogy, I find that these books are not that much epic, but they are very gritty. They don’t deal in deep history, large casts and elaborate world-building. But they do deal in blood, emotions, interpersonal relationships and fights. Abercrombie’s writing has an immediacy to it and feels visceral, and he constructs all his chapters around the personalities of his cast, so we never lose sight of the main characters and their motivations. I find that many fantasy writers seem to forget to do this or simply don’t have Abercrombie’s skill in characterization.

The series was definitely worth sticking with. There is a sharp rise in quality throughout, making the first novel rather basic and the third one a standout work. The First Law series seems to inhabit an in-between land that takes the format of large, epic series of the past like David Eddings’ and Tad Williams’ work, and then upends some expectations, filling it with the nitty-gritty of sword-and-sorcery that is more reminiscent of Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock. Thus was the subgenre of grimdark born.

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Black Panther (2018) Review

Black Panther


Black Panther tells the origin story of the superhero Black Panther, a King of the fictional African hermit kingdom Wakanda. Although, his origin is quickly told: as the heir to the throne of the nation, he inherits the superhero powers that are given to each king. The story itself is much more about an internal power struggle within the kingdom in which the new king T’Challa fights for his throne and figures out what kind of ruler he wants to be. Although this is part of the Marvel universe, it is a standalone film.

The kingdom of Wakanda itself is more interesting than the Black Panther himself. Although Chadwick Boseman is a charismatic person, his character is a bit bland, and Wakanda is such an intriguing place. It is a highly developed, hidden kingdom with technology and riches that surpass the rest of the world, and it is presented as an Afro-futuristic world which is fascinating to see. I do feel though that the African identity elements in this movie only focus on visuals.

The two contenders for the throne also represent two different visions of Wakanda’s future. King T’Challa, originally taught by his father to keep the country save and sealed against the outside world, is now influenced by his ex-girlfriend to use Wakanda’s riches to help other Africans, refugees and to reach out to struggling communities abroad. The American trained soldier who usurped his throne instead wants to use Wakanda’s power to conquer and colonize. Through this very personal struggle between two men, the very role of Wakanda in the world will be decided.

I suppose the forces of good and evil are conveniently aligned with that of the native man versus the outsider and that of the calm person versus the murderous one. This makes for a very straightforward tale, a safe tale, but imagine if the sensibilities and opinions of the characters had been switched. What if T’Challa had wanted to conquer and the outsider wanted Wakanda’s riches to aid the community he came from? That would have made for a far more complex story. I think that would make for an interesting thought experiment, but one that doesn’t fit with the superhero they wanted to create. We’re not filming Blood Diamond here.

And by pointing out all these conveniences I feel like I am missing the point anyway. Black Panther is supposed to be exciting and inspiring. A figurehead to cheer on. Muddling everything up with complex moralities has no place here. This is a film filled to the brim with messages. And I do think that Black Panther the superhero and Wakanda the nation are established here in an exciting and inspiring way. Wakanda’s technology is visually stunning, it’s existence is intriguing and Chadwick Boseman is a charismatic man. I’m surely interested in future instalments set in Africa.

All in all, the story is a nicely epic, emotional one that is easy to feel invested in. But the story of Wakanda the nation is more interesting than King T’Challa himself. He is still figuring out what kind of king he wants to be, but that struggle isn’t felt that much in him. Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist makes a stronger impression on me, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister plays a funny, cheeky sidekick who’s a pleasure to see acting.

I thought the story was simplistic and by the book, but it hits on all the elements that you want to see in a superhero movie, including good action scenes, excitement, good visuals and the African identity feels like a fresh take. I didn’t miss all those annoying quips that plague other Marvel movies. And fresh takes is what we need in the superhero genre. I just hope that future sequels on this theme will have a more complex storyline.

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