Review: Martha Wells – Artificial Condition (2018)

8/10 The Murderbot Diaries #2

I liked this one more than the first novella, All Systems Red (although both novellas are quite strong). It is funnier and more interesting, adding some meat to the bones of the first novella.

Murderbot is on her own now. Not having a clear plan for the future, and not wanting to be found out as a rogue bot, she/he hitches a ride on a bot-controlled cargo ship. The ship bot has very much its own personality and before soon Murderbot nicknames it ART (Asshole Research Transport). Much of the humor comes from ART and Murderbot’s interactions. They watch human TV shows together and occasionally Murderbot shuts herself down in annoyance. ART helps her with a mission to find out more about her past.

The crux of whether this series works for you is whether you relate to Murderbot. I understood her and related up to a point, but also got annoyed a bit… and then we have a problem. Does an anxiety disorder make a personality? There isn’t much else to her. And the worldbuilding alone is not carrying the series; not enough to hook me in. There is lots of talk about companies, contracts, bonds, political entities and the logistics of hacking into corridors, transits, nodes, modules, feeds and supply shuttles, and it is all a bit abstract and bland.

So that brings me back to the characters. I liked ART and Murderbot together. I liked that it took another bot instead of a human to push Murderbot forwards over her hesitations. I also liked the plot, which involves Murderbot pretending to be a human. As a construct, she has some kind of artificially created autism and her struggles feel familiar to anyone who ever had trouble trying to fit in. At the end of the story, Murderbot has had some new experiences with this but I don’t really see her changing yet. Also because the success of the series itself rests on her relatability. How far is Wells willing to let Murderbot change? Don’t know.

What is interesting from a more philosophical point is that Wells’ future is populated by a spectrum of entities, running from humans to augmented humans to human-robot constructs to AIs for all sorts of functions. Murderbot is somewhere in the middle but with an inner conflict, drawn inexplicably towards the human side of it and trying to be one, instead of the other way around of wanting to be more like an AI, even though she’s afraid of being a person. As readers, we sort of take that as logical but that is our own bias. ART, an AI, doesn’t have this conflict. It just is. But Murderbot doesn’t envy ART for that. It also makes us see Murderbot as a flawed kind of human instead of its own thing and wait for her to become more human. Is that a fair expectation? Don’t know.

The story rests on a lot of assumptions about all of this and not much is really made explicit or deepened out. There are enough reviews online that admit to a slight sense of confusion about Murderbot. I feel it too. Partly this is by design, I think. For example, (s)he is genderless but we automatically picture a male or female person. But partly I think the confusion is because Wells focuses on relating to Murderbot because she’s nervous and not so much on building that background. 

If you liked All Systems Red, I’m sure that you’ll like this one too. I did, but I don’t really feel compelled to read the rest of the series.

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Mini-Reviews of recent films from 2021, and some from 2020 and 2019

The White Tiger (2021). Engrossing film about an Indian man trying to escape poverty, based on an equally engrossing novel. A painful look at class differences and inequality. Begins to sag a bit towards the end, but overall great cinematography and acting. 

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021). Raya saves the world from nasty Karens with the help of a my-little-pony dragon. It is beautifully animated. I noticed how the body-language keeps getting more realistic. The writing is a bit basic and chunky. Maybe it is me but it annoys me how screenwriters can never write a fantasy story without giving a giant infodump at the start. “This is the land of Blblblb. And this is our history. And then dragons and then magic. And this is me.” Every animated fantasy does this in the same way. Fortunately, the cuteness overrules the tsunami of explaining necessary to tell the story. The film is quite long for an animation but has enough soul.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021). Well, it is better than the 2017 movie in every respect. The heroes and villains all have clear motivations now, the story is not a mess but can be followed easily and the special effects are better. Even though the movie is 4 hours long, it has a good pace and enough material to (mostly) justify the runtime. Maybe if you lop off the epilogue and cut down on the slow-motion, there’s a good 3 hour movie in here. There are still aspects of Snyder’s directing that I don’t like, like the dark colors, flashing lights and the overabundance of slo-mo, but as far as epic superhero movies goes, this isn’t all that bad.

Thunder Force (2021). The village idiot is accidentally given superpowers. There is a funny story in there somewhere, but the village idiot drags the movie down with her. I will admit that I chuckled a few times because I was in an optimistic mood and have a heart of gold.

Godzilla Vs. Kong (2021). More entertaining than I dare to admit. Yes, it is loud and dumb, but not a giant clusterfuck like a Transformers movie. It has secret corporate stuff and mythology about Hollow Earth that makes it all just a bit more interesting. And every time you think that it couldn’t get any crazier, we take another leap forward. I don’t sense much cynicism behind it, more like an honest effort to make something epic, even if it is dumb. It is dumbness that believes in itself.

Nobody (2021). In the subgenre of retired suburban dad assassins, John Wick is about to get some stiff competition. Is it a rip-off? Yes, almost beat for beat, but it is fast and has enough energy and invention to keep you glued to the screen.

Freaky (2020). Horror-comedy about a body-swap between a serial killer and a high school girl. Vince Vaughn, like Jack Black in Jumanji, shows that he’s a teenage girl at heart. it’s really a dumb silly movie but it gave me a laugh. It’s also a bit slow. If you liked Happy Death Day, this one will work for you.

The Phenomenon (2020). I’ve been going through a UFO phase lately. This is a pretty good recent documentary about them. It won’t give you any straight answers unless you choose to believe the words of people interviewed, but it is very effective in raising interest in the subject. Afterwards I spent an evening watching alien abduction stories that caused me to lay awake for a night in fear. Never doing that again.

Mank (2020). A lengthy romp around Hollywood in the 1930s, in which Gary Oldman stumbles around from stage to studio as the alcoholic writer Mankiewicz, until he’s hired by Orson Welles to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Shot in black and white, it is all a bit overwritten and overindulgent. An annoying film about an annoying man, but admittedly made and played with some skill. 

Feels Good Man (2020). A documentary about Pepe the Frog, its creation and the adoption of the meme by basement dwelling white supremacists. The cartoonist who created Pepe as some innocent childhood figure is now fighting to gain back control over his creation. A really well-made docu about internet memes and how they can escalate. It’s a pretty crazy story and this one is definitely worth checking out.

Color Out Of Space (2019). If you ever want to see Nicolas Cage milk an alpaca, this is the film for you. And that is the least of it. SF-horror after the short story by HP Lovecraft, starring the ever-intriguing Cage. It’s quite a solid movie, a good cosmic horror story with snappy dialogue and atmospheric locations. Great effects and sound. The final Cage-filled descend into alien witchery horror is insane and brilliant. I really liked it a lot.

Vivarium (2019). Really weird movie about moving to suburbia before you’re ready for it. The characters are stuck in a visual metaphor, with hints of a Midwich Cuckoo situation that is taken quite far. It has lots of mystery and turns really morbid and unnerving. I really liked this one, more than most. It stays interesting all the way through.

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019). As entertaining as the last one. The best part is actors impersonating other actors. The Rock is trying to act as Danny DeVito and Kevin Hart gives his impression of Danny Glover. It doesn’t work perfectly but it is still funny. It also has some nice video game jokes and has a good pace. 

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Review: Joe Abercrombie – A Little Hatred (2019)

8,5/10

A start of a new series! Exciting! But not totally new. Set in the First Law world, A Little Hatred takes us a few decades into the future, to a world of late Middle Ages and the rising chimneys of industrialisation. It wasn’t like that in the previous books, but I appreciate that Abercrombie is reinventing the setting. He also throws a whole bucket of new characters in our faces and it feels a bit much at first, but when you discover that these are the offspring of the First Law characters then you can see the old ones reflected in their personalities.

Would this be a good place to start for a reader new to the First Law series? I suppose it is possible, but you’ll have to work a little to get all the factions straight and the references to legendary characters like the Bloody-Nine, the Dogman and Inquisitor Glokta will go over your head. You won’t immediately see how Savine has a tongue as sharp as her father Sand and Orso an ineffectual dandy like Jezal used to be. Actually, I would recommend to read The Heroes (2011) first. Or read A Little Hatred and then read the previous books for the exploits of all the old people in this one.

This series is all about how humans can be pretty brutal to each other when it comes to chasing ambitions. It gets interesting when those ambitions are thwarted, when the struggles change a person or when success turns out to be a new trap. Abercrombie’s best characters are tragic, failed characters who learned wisdom with the years. That’s where the humanity and dark humor flourishes in his writing. Every generation has to learn this anew and the beginnings of industrialisation are simply another sandbox for Abercrombie to play this all out in. 

So, in this sense the book offers more of the same. At times it feels like he is telling the same stories all over again using the same techniques. There’s war brewing in the North (again) and desperate journeys through the cold dirt and muck, there’s infighting at court (as always) and young people wanting to make a name for themselves, there’s devious entrepreneurs and poor people scraping by. Some of it feels regurgitated, but Abercrombie dives in enthusiastically; there’s real craftsmanship on display here and I feel totally safe as a reader that I’m getting a story well-told.

The new characters have large boots to fill, but for Abercrombie, characterisation is his main strength as a writer and the new ones leap from the page just as much as those in the First Law trilogy. Rikke, Savine, Orso and Leo are all well-developed foolish young men and women who learn harsh lessons. Character is the essence from which the rest of his writing flows. The tone of the writing, the descriptions, dialects, the rhythms and length of the sentences, the hopefulness or crassness, are always tailored to support the mentality of a character in a very natural way. And the voices he gives them are very distinct. He can make you root for anyone. 

The centrepiece of the novel is a bloody worker’s revolution. We’ve seen this before in fantasy like Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch and China Mieville’s Iron Council. Abercrombie treats it like the madness of a battlefield, where people stumble about through murky air with eruptions of violence all around them, and not too heavy on politics. Humanity’s inner beastliness comes out on all sides. This is where the grimdark subgenre slides into postmodern relativism where there are no quick answers and evil and suffering are everywhere like some doomsday vision. That makes me think of Steven Erikson who found a way out of this by pointing towards compassion. But where Erikson leans heavily on themes and history to make his point, Abercrombie puts his energy in characterisation and tone and leaves the rest a bit fuzzy. 

A Little Hatred is a strong start of a new trilogy and a good showcase for Abercombie’s talents. My main criticisms are that he floods the story with an overabundance of POVs and seems to write the same stories again and again. But everything else – the character arcs, the prose and tone, the battles – is superb.

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Review: Martha Wells – All Systems Red (2017)

8/10 The Murderbot Diaries #1

The story of murderbot is the story of alienation. Alienation in the sense of an emotional disconnect that many people feel from the rest of society, often starting in early adulthood, causing some to lose themselves in hobbies, or entertainment. In effect, living a separate second life, in which the responsibilities of work or adulthood take place in almost another plane of existence, but around the cracks of those responsibilities a second life can be built of losing yourself in consumption. I know, I’ve been there. Imagine a shy, awkward person, perhaps with social anxieties, perhaps a bit unlucky in the development of his/her personality. Martha Wells knows who she’s writing for.

The brilliant thing about All Systems Red is that the science fiction setting makes this alienation explicit with SF elements. As the novella starts, murderbot is there to support human researchers at a science station on an alien planet. She (or he) is not regarded as fully human because she is a cyborg and programmed with orders. However, she hacked her governing module to watch TV shows whenever she can. But she mustn’t let the researchers know this or she will be taken apart. So, you see the secret life of hobbies that she is leading, while pretending to her employers that No she is all there for the job, sir, totally committed. 

In the first chapter, some action happens and murderbot saves one of the researchers, but severely damages herself in the process. No one cares. The human is rushed to the infirmary but murderbot has to fix herself in the toolshed. She’s a tool and she’s seen as one. Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? But it is not entirely true: one of the humans asks how she’s doing, but murderbot’s own social anxiety aggravates the disconnect. Shyness isn’t what you would expect from a killer cyborg so there is a further disconnect between how she sees herself and the function she fulfils. Call it impostor syndrome. 

That is why this book and the series gained such a following. It is a perfect merger between real life psychological states and a collection of science fiction tropes (being a cyborg and all) to express them. She’s physically and psychologically covered in armour.

Now that I have analysed the sh*t out of it, is it any fun?

Sure, I liked it. Murderbot is interesting enough to carry a novella, but it is not a full story. I do wonder if her (or his) personality will change because so far it is rather static and I couldn’t always empathise with the extreme social anxiety. For it being a character study more than anything else, we don’t learn much about her. If she doesn’t change or deepen out in the next novellas, I can see myself tire of it. So, the novella is more like an opening chapter and doesn’t fully explore what it sets up. 

What I really liked was that in murderbot’s slow progress of self-actualisation, the matter of trust comes up with the humans around her. Does she feel empathy for the humans she protects? And can the humans trust her while she hacks her own modules? There’s this ambiguity in the air and Wells did a great job with laying this all out for us. 

For the next novella, I feel like I am about to be ripped off. I’m not sure it is worth the money. The first 4 books are novellas, but only the first one is reasonably priced as one. The others are all as expensive as novels. Very sneaky. And there is no omnibus edition in sight, only a complete murderbot box with 4 novellas for sixty euros. That’s 60 euros for 600 pages. That’s not just sneaky, that’s outrageous. 

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Review: Terry Pratchett – Going Postal (2004)

7.5/10

I have to admire Pratchett for his continuous innovation in the Discworld series. After more than 30 books and two decades of writing, he still had the imagination to construct new novel sequences with new groups of characters. I guess he had to keep things interesting for himself. In this last patch of Discworld novels he started the young adult sequence featuring Tiffany Aching, and three books about a slippy con man with the glorious name of Moist von Lipwig. Going Postal (2004) is his introduction. Because these are new characters, readers new to Pratchett can start right here. 

Just when Moist von Lipwig is about to be hanged for his fraudulent practices, the Patrician intervenes and makes Moist an offer he cannot refuse: become head postmaster at the defunct Ankh-Morpork post office and breathe new life into it. A clay golem by the name of Mr. Pump accompanies him as his parole officer. What he finds at the post office building is mountains of letters covered in protective layers of pigeon guano, an elderly Junior Postman named Tolliver Groat and hints of old secrets.

Moist, as a professional swindler but deep at heart a decent guy, recognises that half of the work is making people believe that the post office is back in business again, and making people believe things is what he is good at. The story has some similarities to The Truth (2000) a few years earlier in which a Mr de Worde invents the printing press. That story might as well have starred Moist but Pratchett hadn’t invented him yet. Moist is more interesting than De Worde; having a lovable bastard quality to him and an enterprising energy.

Going Postal is quite a lighthearted novel compared to the previous (adult) Discworld novels of Monstrous Regiment (sexism, war) and Night Watch (class struggle, revolution, violence). Pratchett no longer sounds so biting and angry as he did in those books. He has a lot of fun with Moist and the little cult-like band of postmen Moist finds himself in. The old Groat is like a crusty old mariner and the young Stanley is an obsessed pin collector, and with Stanley, Pratchett lovingly ridicules the mindset of obsessive collectors.

All in all it’s a cute little story. I can’t remember any other book about a swindler trying to make a post office work, except perhaps some escapades of Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s series that have the same kind of roguish enterprising quality. Pratchett is a master storyteller, letting the story unfold in a smooth, entertaining way, albeit a bit on the slow side. Also recommended for fans of the golems and of Vetinari.

As an aside: this might be the last Pratchett book for me. That may sound strange after the positive review I just gave, but I’ve always been ambivalent about his books. The series as a whole is unquestionably brilliant, but I always have great trouble pushing through the books, even though I think they are clever and I admire Pratchett’s wit. There is something about the comedy and the silliness that makes my mind go: “this story is not important and neither is the world nor the characters”. I’m reading it for the wordplay and the penmanship, mostly, but never feel invested. I’m always feeling the lack of some forward momentum, and after finishing them they disappear completely from my mind until years later when I suddenly remember that the series exists. For now I have removed it from my TBR list but who knows, a few years down the road I might feel a sudden urge to pick up the next one.

The 2010 Going Postal TV mini-series

Produced by the British television channel Sky, this life-action two-parter is quite good. It follows the book closely; individual scenes and lines are taken directly from Pratchett’s work, but at a slightly higher pace. Charles Dance is cast perfectly as Lord Vetinari and Claire Foy as Adora Dearheart. The guy who plays Moist, Richard Coyle, I wasn’t familiar with, but he has a long career in television and does the job well.

And with great relief I can say that the clacks system is interpreted very well and the golems don’t look ridiculous (or only a little bit). In some ways they tried to improve on the book by making Moist’s personal growth clearer and his wooing of Adora has a lot more drama to it. These additions are in some parts inferior to what Pratchett came up with, but it gives Adora and actress Claire Foy a much more active role in the story and there’s nothing wrong with that. The additions are only visible if you are familiar with the book chapter by chapter, line by line (here it helps that I’ve just read the book). The series is perfect for a dreary Sunday afternoon.

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Review: The Incal by Jodorowsky & Moebius

9/10

The Incal is a graphic novel that you can find on many top lists of greatest graphic novels ever written, and not rarely occupying a top spot. It is not well known in the US, but a work of legendary status in the French-Belgian comic tradition. There is a story surrounding this novel, a history of creators and influences, that I find fascinating.

The driving force behind this was the charismatic but loony Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky. After directing a couple of surrealist, avant-garde films, such as The Holy Mountain (1973), he got it into his mind to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) for the big screen. His Dune project turned into a megalomaniacal endeavour and would star Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, his own son as Paul Atreides and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. They were all on board with this. For concept art, Jodorowsky wooed Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and the French artist Jean Giraud to add their work. The complete story can be seen in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). 

Eventually the whole project crashed and burned because Jodorowsky delivered a screenplay the size of a phone book that detailed a 14-hour film, and no American producer would ever agree to that (and rightly so). The rights were resold for the later film by David Lynch. But it was not all for nothing. Most of the material created for the film was repurposed for other projects. H.R. Giger’s artwork for instance was reused for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). 

Jodorowsky kept working with Jean Giraud, who was better known as the cartoonist Moebius and famous for his Blueberry series. Moebius and Jodorowsky pulled all the concept art together that they had created for the Dune film and decided to write their own space opera based on the material, and that would become The Incal. In some circles, The Incal might as well rival Dune for its impact on film and art and its great story. Many comic artists have emulated the work. The praise for it is high. Various reviewers mentioned its impact on the visuals of movies like Akira, Blade Runner, The Matrix, the Star Wars prequels and director Luc Besson was even dragged into a lawsuit over plagiarism for his film The Fifth Element, although Moebius cooperated with him on the film so some similarities might have been expected.

Let’s get into the story and the artwork.

This story is insane. Absolutely insane, like The Fifth Element combined with some avant-garde surrealist infusion of Buddhism and Carl Jung. It follows the lowly class-R licensed detective John DiFool (yes) who accidentally gains possession of the most sought-after object in the universe, the Incal. From that moment on starts an insane escalation. Every few pages, something utterly bizarre happens that raises the stakes again and again and the book keeps this up for about 300 pages at a breathlessly high pace. There is no restraint to it.

I’m not going to go over it because you have to experience the ride for yourself. I can mention some elements, and I can say that I have never seen so much invention squeezed into 300 pages and it is all very original, even with it having been copied so often. The world, the story, has dystopian future cities, genetic manipulation, strange techno-priest classes, aliens, prophets, orcs, true love, decadent nobles, a super assassin, the threat of the end of the universe, mad max like guerrilla groups, war, rebels, deep history, gladiators, futuristic drugs, messiah figures, transfigurations of consciousness and matter… what doesn’t it have? I am still scratching the surface here, I really am. It has a concrete seagull named Deepo.

The influence of Dune is still visible in some parts, but overall it is very different. Most of the story is about competing groups of people, organisations and species that have their own agendas. There are metaphysical elements to it as well. Some imagery from Lynch’s Dune film can be traced back to panels here. The details of the universe are very different from Dune and the characters as well.

It’s very satirical. There’s lots of commentary on mass consumption of entertainment. The corruption and waste of civilisation. Science and technology are not seen in a very positive light and are juxtaposed to love, spirituality and grounded ways of living.

The story has enormous re-readability because it is just such a wild ride. The drawback is that the high pace sacrifices character development and the immersive exploration of the world. There is so much running around that we never really get to know the characters well or understand what it is like to live in John’s world. On top of that, Jodorowsky cannot for the life of him write good dialogue. You’ll see his characters say things like “Aargh! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to suffer!” “Oh no! The cosmic horror!” This turns the characters into clownish or one-note caricatures. Especially the female characters are badly written, just stereotypes of evil hags or perfect angels. Jodorowsky and Moebius were old horny men with outdated sensibilities and heads filled with new age hippy crap. I still like it, though.

The artwork by Moebius is perfect. It looks much simpler than it is. The linework and deliberate lack of shadows makes the art look almost simplistic, but he always has the perfect perspective and perfect frame composition. His drawings and panels are very dynamic and work wonders to draw you into the story; really visual storytelling at its best. The coloring is understated, but the controlled nature of it makes the panels appealing and inviting.

The Incal spawned a small galaxy of related work, often named the “Jodoverse”. The prequel Before the Incal is almost as good as the original, and Final Incal and the Metabarons series I have heard great things about, although I haven’t read them. If you’ve read The Incal but you’re looking for more character development for John Difool and a deeper satirical dive into the society he lives in, then Before The Incal will give you that, but don’t start that prequel before reading The Incal first.

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Review: Neal Stephenson – Fall or, Dodge in Hell (2019)

Did not finish at around 50%

This monster of a novel starts with tech-billionaire Dodge dying in a hospital, and his family finding out that Dodge’s will states that upon his death, his body should be cryogenically frozen. In these first chapters, Stephenson gives us a protracted romp around the town with lawyers and tech firms with the goal of giving us a realistic scenario of a moment, not too far into our future, when a tech billionaire conceivably has the funds and technology to have his brain scanned and uploaded into the cloud. There’s a lot of Nealsplanation, but that is a feature. It’s immersive and believable. 

Ancient history and myth are alive and well in Stephenson’s novel. Not only does Dodge ruminative about the Greek muses and underworld, but Corvallis (another major character) reenacts his historical fantasies as live action role-playing games in the Montana mountains, and all the while religion has a strong presence in this future’s America, transforming the land and social fabric. Stephenson likely took his idea of social enclaves from Snow Crash (1992) and updated it with a heady mix of conspiracy theories and social media bubbles. This is all setup, thematically, for the other part of the book. 

Because we do meet Dodge again in his uploaded state in some virtual reality world. The myth- and religion-infused reality of future America makes the point that humans always tend to seek out, loose or find themselves in understandings of reality on another plane. Everyone is already living in their own version of reality, enforced by social media too. This future America is hilarious to me but also a foreboding hellscape of what might be coming. A virtual reality, then, is only one step further; a playground of infinite possibility that will be shaped by the same yearnings, the same psychological or spiritual tendencies, of humans seeking meaningful experiences like they do in the real world.

So, thematically the book escalates from one reality to the next in nicely argued steps, but the reading experience isn’t all that smooth. We frequently jump into the future to new characters that we have to familiarise ourselves with, and the greatest jump comes with Dodge’s experiences in virtual reality, which feel like myth or some world of warcraft game. Stephenson tries to mix this with his near-future world, but it feels like oil and water and ends up a troubled emulsion of blobs of fantasy and blobs of science fiction. All the fantasy blobs sink to the bottom of the book.

This is where I started skipping – sentences at first, and then whole paragraphs. I skimmed through the rest to see how it would end, but in truth the book totally lost me. Dodge in cyberspace starts creating his own world – trees, landscapes, appendages, a palace – and it just goes on forever. Never-ending chunks of tedious description, page after page, that is just about nothing. It’s like reading a description of someone making a Minecraft world. It is fantasy without a story and mythology without morality. I pushed ahead to the chapters about the real-life characters but those got few and far in between. All the interesting characters of the first half of the book end up dedicating their time to figuring out what Dodge is up to, and that is where their story arcs end. 

The idea behind it is pretty neat: Dodge and eventually the other uploaded people end up living together in a mythology-inspired virtual world, that is all nicely set-up and thematically prepared by the first half of the book, but the execution is unreadable. The first half of the book about tech-bros and Ameristan is actually fun and would have made a fine novel if he had chosen to make that the main focus. The worst thing about this is that Stephenson apparently learned nothing from the criticism levelled at Seveneves (2015) in which he abandoned his story at the 2/3 mark and asked his readers to invest in an entirely new cast of characters. The problems with Fall or, Dodge in Hell are very comparable.

I would like to redirect everyone to Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994). Almost 20 years old but goes further and deeper into the same topics, within the span of only 300 pages.

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Review: Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun (2021)

8/10

Klara is a robot, an Artificial Friend (AF) whose purpose in life is to be bought to become a companion for lonely children from wealthy families. The story starts in the store where Klara stands around – sometimes in the storefront windows to attract customers – waiting to be sold. It is clear from the start that not all the AFs have the same personalities. Klara is a much better observer than the other robots and has a better grasp on reading body language and emotions. Before soon, she catches the eye of the girl Josie and is purchased.

Klara and The Sun is a novel that fits snugly inside Ishiguro’s bibliography. Klara has the same lack of control over her life as the characters in Never Let Me Go (2005) and occupies the same position of supportive servitude as the butler in The Remains of the Day (1989). Powerlessness, loyalty, love, servitude, loneliness and quiet observation are among the themes that Ishiguro loves to pick up and his story for Klara is tailor-made for them. These themes, along with observing humanity from an outside perspective, are the main focus and not so much the complexities of artificial intelligence and how all of that works.

I’ve said this in my review for Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro is a master of the first-person perspective. He voices his characters with a gentleness, clarity and sincerity that is very much his own and I have never read the like, anywhere. To be honest, Never Let Me Go is still slightly better in that regard.

Klara is plainly self-aware. There are some behaviors hard-coded in her, like an unquestioned loyalty to and support for the children in her care. Leaving aside the question of how realistic that is, for Ishiguro she’s a character with a “love” that is purer than what we find among humans, which is messy and can be cruel, and how Klara is treated of course reflects that. In contrast to Klara, our own flaws become apparent. It’s a very recognisable role for a robot character, really, to reflect our own nature back at us. Compare this to Sonmi-451 from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) or David from the film AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). It’s a fairy tale decanted into a sci-fi setting.

I had written a whole piece about how the story feels like it has been done a million times before. Not just the robot angle but the sentimental Pinocchio story too, and that even Ishiguro has written this story before, in sf and non-sf settings. I’ve deleted it because it felt unfair to put so much weight on it. Ishiguro creates some social dilemmas around robots and people’s emotions that I haven’t seen worked out so poignantly. What was an issue though, was that I was missing a hook to draw me in. Lines on the back like “do you believe in the human heart” or “what does it mean to love” are just cliched placeholders. What makes this worth reading?

A third into the book I started to understand: the story’s greatest value lies in individual scenes. Klara with Josie among her friends, Klara with Josie and the boy next door, Klara with Josie among her mother and housekeeper. These are scenes of emotional complexity. Klara doesn’t understand half of it, but her presence is disruptive and through her eyes we see the unspoken tensions, the worries, the deeper emotional connections, the group dynamics, the social masks. And the social changes of a world a few decades into the future. It is all super controlled by Ishiguro; very well written, with good prose and fully realised characters.

And it is Ishiguro’s modus to keep the purpose of his stories hidden until the latter parts of the novel, instead painting an elaborate picture of moods and feelings that slowly unfold what is going on here. It’s a beautiful but a bit unnerving story. It goes in directions that are quite touching and heavy and I was really impressed by it. I can’t give it a really high score because I kept finding excuses to put off reading. It’s not a book that demands to be read. But the second half really had an emotional impact on me.

After three successful speculative fiction novels in a row, is Ishiguro still a “literary writer trying out sf”? Or is he fully “in transition”? Time will tell.

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TOP 100 SCI-FI BOOKS

This is my list.

I’ve been reading science fiction since 2007. But I haven’t read everything out there. I also read non-fiction and fantasy, confining the SF part of my reading to about 15 books per year.

I think I’ve read enough to give at least an interim conclusion.

This is all bollocks anyway; the list will be outdated within a week. This is just a snapshot. March 2021. Also, many of these books I read years ago and I have no idea where they would end up on a reread.

Books that have not made it on the list for one reason or another.

There are a number of high profile books that I simply haven’t read yet. So don’t be angry if you can’t find them on the list. Don’t be angry in general. I haven’t read:

  • Any book by William Gibson
  • Any book by Connie Willis
  • Any book by Ian McDonald
  • Any book by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Any book by Octavia E. Butler
  • Any book by Stephen King
  • Any book by Arkady Martine
  • The Red Rising series by Pierce Brown
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
  • Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
  • The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Contact by Carl Sagan
  • Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton
  • The Sun Eater series by Christopher Ruocchio

Now that we got that out of the way, here are the runner-ups. Many of these are pretty good. They may well end up on the list if I ever reread them:

AuthorBook
Dave HutchinsonEurope in Winter
David D. LevineArabella of Mars
Cixin LiuThe Dark Forest
Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Cixin LiuThe Three-Body Problem
James S.A. CoreyCaliban’s War
James S.A. CoreyLeviathan Wakes
China MievilleEmbassytown
Ernest ClineReady Player One
Alastair ReynoldsTerminal World
Margaret AtwoodYear of the Flood
Iain M. BanksMatter
Alastair ReynoldsThe Prefect
Alastair ReynoldsGalactic North
Peter F. HamiltonJudas Unchained
Richard K. MorganBroken Angels
Alastair ReynoldsChasm City
Gen WolfeReturn to the Whorl
Iain M. BanksLook to Windward
Gene WolfeIn Green’s Jungles
Jack VanceNight Lamp
Gene WolfeLake of the Long Sun
Gene WolfeCaldé of the Long Sun
Vernor VingeA Fire Upon the Deep
Iain M. BanksThe State of the Art
Michael CrichtonJurassic Park
Iain M. BanksThe Player of Games
Douglas AdamsDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Iain M. BanksConsider Phlebas
Frank HerbertHeretics of Dune
Isaac AsimovFoundation’s Edge
Arthur C. ClarkeThe Fountains of Paradise
Frederik PohlGateway
Philip K. DickA Scanner Darkly
Jack VanceMaske: Thaery
M. John HarrisonThe Centauri Device
Joe HaldemanThe Forever War
Philip K. DickFlow My Tears, the Policeman Said
T.J. BassHalf Past Human
Poul AndersonTau Zero
Philip K. DickA Maze of Death
Jack VanceEmphyrio
Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse Five
Arthur C. Clarke2001: A Space Odyssey
Jack VancePlanet of Adventure
Philip K. DickDo Androids dream of Electric Sheep?
Roger ZelaznyLord of Light
Roger ZelaznyThis Immortal
Jack VanceThe Demon Princes
Philip K. DickMartian Time-Slip
Arthur C. ClarkeA Fall of Moondust
Kurt VonnegutThe Sirens of Titan
Philip K. DickTime Out Of Joint
Brian W. AldissNon-Stop
Jack VanceThe Languages of Pao
Stanislaw LemThe Star Diaries
Richard MathesonI am Legend
Isaac AsimovThe Caves of Steel
Alfred BesterThe Demolished Man
Arthur C. ClarkeChildhood’s End
Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. KornbluthThe Space Merchants
Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451
Isaac AsimovSecond Foundation
John WyndhamThe Day of the Triffids
George OrwellAnimal Farm
Aldous HuxleyBrave New World
H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds

Now we come to the main event.

Top 100 sci-fi books.

Hold on to your butts.

  1. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  2. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  3. Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert
  4. Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder
  5. Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  6. Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
  7. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  8. Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
  9. Olympos by Dan Simmons
  10. Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
  1. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
  2. Starfish by Peter Watts
  3. I am Legend by Richard Matheson
  4. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  5. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney
  6. Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
  7. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  8. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
  9. UBIK by Philip K. Dick
  10. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
  1. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  2. Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton
  3. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
  4. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
  6. Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
  7. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
  8. The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
  9. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  10. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
  1. The City and The City by China Mieville
  2. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
  3. Sisyphean by Dempow Torishima
  4. VALIS by Philip K. Dick
  5. Way Station by Clifford D. Simak
  6. The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
  7. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
  8. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
  10. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich by Philip K. Dick
  1. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  2. The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem
  3. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  4. The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
  5. Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  6. Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison
  7. Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds
  8. Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  9. Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
  10. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
  1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  2. World War Z by Max Brooks
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  4. Accelerando by Charles Stross
  5. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  6. Excession by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  8. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  10. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  1. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  2. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  3. The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  4. The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith
  5. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
  6. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
  7. Nova Swing by M. John Harrison
  8. Speaker For the Dead by Orson Scott Card
  9. Engine Summer by John Crowley
  10. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  1. Ilium by Dan Simmons
  2. Replay by Ken Grimwood
  3. The Will To Battle by Ada Palmer
  4. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  5. The Martian by Andy Weir
  6. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  7. God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
  8. Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  9. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  10. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  1. House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
  2. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  3. Diaspora by Greg Egan
  4. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  5. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
  6. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
  8. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
  9. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  10. Light by M. John Harrison
  1. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
  2. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
  3. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
  5. Anathem by Neal Stephenson
  6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  7. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  9. Dune by Frank Herbert
  10. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Notes:

The Book of the New Sun is actually 4 books but the sum is greater than its parts. The same goes for Iain M. Banks’ Culture series but since the books are bigger I rated them separately.

I wasn’t sure if Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is SF. If so it would end up in the 30 range. Same goes for David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

Now what do you think? Are there any essential works missing that my stupid person should pick up immediately?

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Review: M. John Harrison – Empty Space: A Haunting (2012)

8.5/10

Also in this series:


Empty Space is the third and final entry in M. John Harrison’s magisterial Kefahuchi Tract series. Loosely connected to the previous books, Empty Space follows three timelines which feature characters from both Light (2002), such as Anna Kearney, and Nova Swing (2006) like Fat Antoyne. Whereas the previous volumes could be read independently from one another, this one embraces both.

Harrison has a lot of fun here. In this crazy future, humanity will be the same tragicomical mess that it is today, with all the same typical people. If the book is about the future anyway. Harrison does not seem to take it seriously as a possible future. It is just an SF environment to play with, or to react against. He takes the hardest of hard far-out futuristic concepts to the point that even the future people don’t understand what is going on around them, something that usually inspires awe in very serious SF books, and Harrison plays with them in a story that frames the entire future and the human condition in a lovingly mocking way. 

Empty Space has multiple meanings. The Kefahuchi Tract is the frontier of everything, beyond science as a source of understanding, beyond definitions of humanity. What is left to the inhabitants is a sort of clinging to the past. And how could you even be sure of your own identity in a world where, for example, psychic blowback from spaceship engines reinscribes the thoughts and feelings of people? Where escapes of code running on nanotech and human proteins leads to outbreaks of new behavior? Abandoned buildings, derelict space ports; there’s a heavy focus on economic decline in this book.  It’s a pastiche of moods about identity and economic decline, and of the past protruding into the present, all naturally going hand in hand with a feeling of being lost. Anna Kearney is a very confused woman. Even her bathroom is a site of existential terror. One character is trying out names for herself to get a feel for them. Another character identifies as human but might as well be an emergent property of AIs run by a diner chain. 

The book is a great addition to Light (2002) and I have to repeat here what I wrote about the characters back then: They are all searching for things, whether it is relief, or memories of forgotten pasts. They are hollow, they chase compulsions – most of all sexual – to fill up the emotional holes inside them. But that doesn’t mean that there is no love. Harrison’s prose makes it all very beautiful. 300 pages of Harrison filled to the brim with what the Portuguese call saudade and the Japanese call mono no aware. But the descriptions sometimes skirt the edge of comprehension. Harrison’s worlds are super detailed and precise, down to the textual level of pinpointing character and environment with exactly the right words, but sometimes it is hard to know if you should take things literally or figuratively. The world-building is more like a token and swirls around voids, in space but also emotionally, as part of Harrison’s own search for meaning. Sometimes I think that Harrison is unable to write SF or fantasy, even though he must love it. He makes genres look like lies, always bringing it back to a search for meaning that undermines genre tropes.

Empty Space is a kind of refracted echo of Light (2002) where the linkages between the two are tantalising but never entirely clear. The same goes for the linkages between the future and the present day timelines. The whole series swirls around a sense of dread and near-understanding, an unthought known, that is never made explicit. Plot summaries are of no help here. The 24th century is a future in love with the past, and the past of Anna and Michael Kearney has echoes of that future, as if strange mathematics took Anna and Michael’s present day world and neuroses and from it fractalled a future into existence. I am not necessarily saying that is what it is.

The entire narrative can be seen as akin to a science fiction writer conjuring a space opera world into being, created from his own interests and exhibiting the same neuroses, but the imaginary cannot escape the writer’s neuroses and finally the real and the imaginary collapse into each other. This is not a criticism but might be a cypher. Light (2002) detailed the moment of creation, the Kearney-Tate equations; Nova Swing (2006) acknowledged only its own universe, wallowed in it. Empty Space, well, read for yourself. 

Even though the final chapters are absolutely mental, and that’s saying something for this series, the book wasn’t quite as compelling as the first two in the series. It lacked some freshness and spice. The story of Anna is a really good character study though and the future stuff was suitably weird. And let’s be honest, if you’ve read and liked the first books, this one is required reading.

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