Peter F. Hamilton – The Reality Dysfunction (1996) Review

DNF at 65%

Peter F. Hamilton’s first major space opera series clearly marks him as part of the British space opera revival movement that includes the authors Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds and Neal Asher. Hamilton’s big fat 1200 page space story fits snugly among the works of these other writers and not just because of its great length, but because all of these writers seem to drink from the same well of science fictional ideas. 

Succeeding a whole bunch of Banks’ Culture novels, The Reality Dysfunction takes on board the idea of sentient space ships and sentient habitats, and big oblong vessels and having conversations with your ships. And predating Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, Hamilton introduces us to communities of humans who have shared telepathic links, and form a separate culture called the Edenists, who differentiate themselves from the Adamists who never wanted to embrace that evolution. This is all awfully similar to Alastair Reynolds’s Conjoiners and Demarchists. There is more in The Reality Dysfunction that is later echoed in Revelation Space, namely the Rust Belt of broken habitats, here called the Ruin Ring. In short, this book occupies a space in the timeline of these British space opera writers from where you can draw lines of influence forwards and backwards in time.

See, that’s the thing with Peter F. Hamilton. There are actually two things. First, his books are so massive and play out over such a broad canvas that he is bound to tackle ideas similar to those of a whole bunch of his peers. Secondly, his writing may have received its fair share of criticism (and we will get to that) but let’s not forget that he is capable of really wonderful ideas. Ideas that in turn influenced writers after him. I especially enjoyed the symbiotic relationships of the Edenists with their biological space ships, and their shared lifecycle. 

The first few hundred pages are bit of a barrier to full immersion into the story. It’s not easy to get into it. For the first 5 chapters, every chapter introduces a new group of characters in a new situation before returning to any of them, and in chapters after that, new characters keep popping up. For the first few hundred pages, every chapter is like a standalone vignette, introducing some of the sociological, political and scientific concepts of this far-future place. Hamilton wants to show us every corner of his galaxy before the story finally creaks into motion at around the 400 page mark. On their own, these vignettes are interesting. One is about alien archeology, another about rebels transporting a super-weapon, another about a colonisation effort with indentured workers, another about a living spaceship giving birth to a baby space ship. On their own, all interesting stories. This is Hamilton saying: here is a universe to get lost in. Escape your real life and submerge yourself in these stories. And when the plot begins, we recognise that there is something going wrong in the universe that we’ve been enjoying.

If you have a basic love for space opera, you’ll work your way through those first few hundred pages and get into the groove of it later on, but for readers new to science fiction it might be a bit much. I was having a good time but was far from being impressed. But when the main conflict started, I didn’t know what to think about it. A portal to Hell opened up and spirits or demons took possession of some criminals and suddenly they glow and have superpowers. They cause some kind of expanding zombie infection of people being taken over by spirits from the afterlife. It also involved an idiotic priest character who, in b-movie fashion, does nothing but rave about Jesus and Hell in a completely useless way.

I did not have an easy time getting through the rest of the novel. It’s not hard to read, but I think it is bland, with underdeveloped characters without interesting developmental arcs, and a bland disaster movie plot about possessed people with magic powers. 

Hamilton’s writing is nothing special either, and often clunky. Whenever he starts talking about some technical thing, such as how a space suit functions, or how a planet’s magnetic field works, he gets lost in the details and seems to forget that he was telling a story. It often happened that in the middle of an exciting scene or dialogue, he might pause for half a page to describe in detail every room and building in the area, complete with a materials analysis of the walls and ceilings. So, his prose is incredibly wordy, but not necessarily clear, and much of it is unnecessary in general. I found his style a bit tedious. 

On top of that, his social commentaries and human relationships are all very superficial. One group has a kind of over-zealous Christianity, another group a naive angry high-school atheism, and some bad guys follow a Satanic sect. The women are all attractive teenagers, and there is a heavy focus on sex which comes up in every chapter for some reason, sometimes multiple times per chapter. Of the dozen named hot teenage girl characters, you can be sure that they all meet a certain dashing male captain and fall for him. And their mums. It gets really excessive with excited mentions of zero-g sex cages and so on, and that stuff is all really badly written.

The book only looks monumental because it is big, but that doesn’t make it good, and it has the kind of writing that cannot engage me for that long. And ultimately, I didn’t find the story interesting. After the introductions of the storylines, the remaining 800 pages are about people fighting possessed people with magic powers as they take over planets, communicated in a very bland way with bland characters. I heard that in book two, a planet is taken over by someone possessed by the ghost of Al Capone, so if that sounds interesting to you, give it a shot but it will take you 1200 pages to get there. For me, I am checking out.

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Comic Review: Valerian and Laureline, Vol. 1-3

  • Vol 1: The City of Shifting Waters (1970)
  • Vol 2: The Empire of a Thousand Planets (1971)
  • Vol 3: The Land Without Stars (1972)

One of the most influential European science fiction comics of the 20th century, Valerian and Laureline, had plenty of impact on comics in both Europe and the US, on SF movies such as Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian and The Fifth Element, and on the SF genre in general. Written by two childhood friends, writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, the comic gave a huge boost to the French comic market and the name Laureline, which didn’t exist before the comic, became an actual French name. Let’s find out if the comic is still worth reading or is horribly dated.

The first album The City of Shifting Waters (1970) quickly introduces us to Valerian and Laureline, two special agents from the 28th century – spatio-temporal agents who travel through space and time to solve problems for the human civilisation of Galaxity. (I recently reviewed the comic Orbital with the same setup which is clearly inspired by Valerian.) We don’t really get to know much about these two characters in this album, nor about the 28th century. The two agents have to travel back to 1986 on Earth to chase after a time-traveling criminal named Xombul. The drawing style is interesting. Valerian is drawn as a square-jawed hero, with a huge head and huge cleft chin and skinny arms and legs. That’s how he behaves as well: brash, sardonic, overconfident. Laureline is drawn as an elegant girl with sensual long hair. She’s smarter than Valerian and must have a lot of patience to be his partner. She’s quite badass while Valerian is a bit of a doofus and not all that heroic, even though he looks the part. 

If you were hoping for a futuristic adventure, the first album might let you down. The writer shows us a little trip through a post-apocalyptic United States of 1986. The polar caps have melted, New York is flooded up to the 4th floors and overgrown by jungle. Valerian and Laureline dress up in 20th century clothes and ride horses. Back in the 1970s, the writers thought that this might happen through atomic explosions as a result of the Cold War. No one yet realised that greenhouse gases might get us there too. The story moves quickly and is heavy on the plot and action and not so much on characters. The writing tends to lean towards over-exposition, and sometimes the text-bubbles are large and crowd out the artwork. It’s a lot of reading for a comic.

The similarities between The Empire of a Thousand Planets (1971) and the two Star Wars films The Empire Strikes Back (1980) And The Return of the Jedi (1983) are unreal. Valerian and Laureline travel in their Millennium Falcon-like spaceship to the center of an Empire, that is ruled by an evil helmeted priest from some enlightened order. The agents are captured and brought to his temple, which looks like Jabba’s palace. Valerian gets imprisoned in what looks like a block of carbonite, and Laureline ends up in palace party clothes. They escape, gather a rebel fleet and finally confront the priest, who turns out to have a connection to Earth’s past, and a burned face underneath his helmet.

The Land Without Stars (1972) is a very unsubtle metaphor about the battle between the sexes that I enjoyed more than I want to admit. Valerian and Laureline are stranded in a hollow planet, in which two cities are fighting an endless war. One city is a matriarchy and men do all the work, including being sent into war, and the other city is a patriarchy and women do all the work, including being sent into war. Our heroes split up, work their way up into the confidence of the ruling queen and king of the cities, then they both kidnap the queen and king to bring them together, and the two rulers fall in love. The romantic tension between Valerian and Laureline is also stronger here and made precious by them being separated on these missions, and the hollow planet is visualised neatly by the artist.

As science fiction stories I found these comics unremarkable. There’s nothing much wrong with them, yet neither are they especially witty or clever. Although the third story shows hints of something more interesting. A lot happens in them – Valerian and Laureline each have their own adventures and those always come together in a successful cooperation, and it is good that the stories make room for both of these characters to play important roles, but the stories are so plot-focused that they never move beyond a pulp adventure tone. They solve the problems, defeat the antagonists and go back home happy and ready for the next job. A pathos is missing to make an emotional impression on me. I did enjoy each album more than the one before, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding a lot and I heard that that only gets better as the series goes on. I might try a few more of these.

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13 Mini Reviews of Movies From 2023

Cocaine Bear (2023). Watch this with a group of friends, preferably intoxicated, because if you watch this by yourself you will inevitably wonder what you are doing with your life watching this. The film doesn’t amount to much but could have been worse. 2.5/5

Fire of Love (2022). Oscar-nominated documentary. About Katia and Maurice Krafft, two renowned volcanologists and a loving couple in love with their volcanoes. For decades they travelled the globe as researchers, shooting hundreds of hours of film, only to sadly lose their lives at an eruption in 1991. This documentary is a requiem and a selection from their archives that follows their career. It’s full of the most stunning and mesmerising imagery of eruptions and lava flows. 4/5

65 (2023). Adam Driver plays an alien astronaut who crash-lands on the Earth of 65 million years ago. It is slow. The actors stare a lot and probably weren’t given enough direction. It lacked plot. The dinosaurs looked bad. Nothing about it was engaging. Not recommended. Reminded me of After Earth (2013). 1/5

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023). Against all expectations, this was a fantastically funny film. It didn’t take itself too seriously and delivered a whole lot of entertaining quests, heists and banter. The characters were likeable and it had plenty to love for any lover of fantasy. Clearly inspired by a whole lot of films, including The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it works. If you like fantasy in general, I think you’ll like this. 4/5

A Man Called Otto (2022). Tom Hanks plays the grumpiest man in the neighbourhood. I kind of understood him, though. The people around him are very annoying. I could end up like this if I’m not careful. New Latin neighbours move in and convince Otto to stop trying to kill himself with their extroversion. It’s a comedy and a tragedy. Much of this film really annoyed me but the second half has some very powerfully emotional moments and made me tear up. The music choices annoyed me; the songs and the bingly-bongly music for the funny parts. I could also have done without the sappy flashbacks which had too much wooden acting, unrealistic dialogue and annoying characterisation. They brought the whole film down for me. But this also has Hanks’ best performance in a good while. 4/5

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023). These superhero movies start to resemble the Power Rangers more and more. It’s just another bad guy of the week episode. Sometimes fun but very forgettable. 3/5

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023). CGI overload with very basic writing and really lazy, dumb, annoying dialogue. Respect for the actors for not constantly rolling their eyes at this shit. It feels written by a 14 year old and it was depressingly soulless. 2/5

Air (2023). The story of how Nike courted Michael Jordan for their basketball shoes. The film tries so so hard to evoke that Beverly Hills Cop Space Jam era. It’s not a bad film; it’s well acted and well written. And seeing Damon and Affleck together again on the screen was fun. The story itself I didn’t find all that interesting though. It’s simple, decisions were reached quickly in the story, and the stakes didn’t feel that high. It’s still worth a watch. 3/5

Renfield (2023). I… this was supposed to be Nicolas Cage’s Dracula film, but he isn’t in it much. The rest of the film is a weak, scatterbrained comedy about a crime-scene investigation that it just terribly boring. Cage as Dracula was awesome, but the rest of it…. The characters are boring. The action is boring. All of it is boring. 2/5

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (2023). One of the better movies of this Late Superhero era of the 2020s. It’s also one of the grossest movies, and I am not talking about the box office. I’m talking about James Gunn’s love for slime, blood and biological experiments. The story tugged at the heartstrings effectively, and not every dramatic moment is undercut by a joke, but it is also the kind of movie that ends with a lengthy scene of everyone dancing. That is how Americans communicate a happy ending. 3/5

Sisu (2023). A badass Finnish western. A Finnish commando finds gold in northern Lapland, and a company of Nazis try to take it from him. Beautiful shots of arctic Scandinavia, and grisly, grisly murder. Very simple plot; soulful and hard and great fun. Recommended for fans of John Wick. 4/5

The Super Mario Bros Movie (2023). Bright happy fun, if you understand the references to the games. The story is very bland though; just a vehicle for the references. The music choices were a bit bizarre. 2.5/5

Star Trek: Picard, Season 3 (2023). A real breath of fresh air after the atrociously bad first and second seasons. This new season works, most of all because it gives us a recognition of the old TNG series, of how its characters worked and of its long history. The first four episodes form one arc, one that feels very much like one of the old TNG movies or a two-parter, but a quality version. The one thing holding it back is a tired angry villain trope, and that never really goes away. The rest of the series you could see as a lot of well-written fan service, or as a very heartfelt send-off. This was the perfect final piece of Star Trek for the Next Generation fans that fixed all the mistakes. Now leave them alone and move on. 4.5/5

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Manga Review: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982-95) by Hayao Miyazaki. An ecological SF epic to rival Dune.

The manga of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a massive achievement in storytelling by a single author and artist, and it is one of the best epic fantasy/SF stories I have ever read, comic or otherwise. 

Set in a post-apocalyptic age, the world has become largely uninhabitable because of the destruction and pollution of a past World War. (For Miyazaki reflecting the condition of Japan after World War II.) The continents are now covered by a dense forest of giant fungi and insects which thrive on the polluted lands, and which pushes all the humans, what’s left of them, to the edges of the world. Nausicaä is a young princess and prospective heir to the little mountain kingdom of the Valley of the Wind, close to the border of the endless fungus forest. They are a vassal state of a warlike empire, and Nausicaä is obliged to join their war and so ends up in a chaos of backstabbing royal princes, massive aerial battles and general Game of Thrones-like complications between kingdoms, set against the backdrop of this ongoing environmental apocalypse. The various kingdoms all have their cultures and languages. The human world has regressed to a steampunk-like stage where kingdoms make use of the technological remains of the past high-tech world, such as massive floating airships and the overgrown skeletons of immense biotech robots.

All the while, Nausicaä makes discoveries about the massive fungus forest. It is not evil but in fact purifies the ground and cleanses the world of pollution. The kings of the forests are the Ohmu, giant pillbugs the size of small hills, and they are intelligent and share some kind of telepathic hivemind. In comparison to the Ohmu, all the human struggles seem small, and Nausicaä’s connection with these forest dwellers may be more important than all the human wars. This rather intricate, elaborate setup of kings, wars and nature is communicated to us through an exhilarating, action-packed story full of warfare, feats of heroism, love and loyalty, a varied cast of characters and quiet moments of spiritual connection to nature.  

It is both an ecological epic fantasy like Dune and a cinematic war epic with lots of visual references to World War II. It has stirring, page-turning siege scenes, trench warfare, military strategy, scorched earth, weapons of mass destruction, biowarfare, chaotic withdrawals across the countryside and aerial dogfights. It also has the beauty of nature, the dangers of nature, and philosophies about our place in nature. 

Nausicaä develops into a natural leader over the course of the epic, and we learn more and more about the natural world. When the Ohmu start to interfere in the human fighting and see a special role for Nausicaä, the story gains echoes of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Especially of Paul Atreides’ mastery of the Sandworms and his psychic powers. Miyazaki acknowledged more influences besides Dune, such as Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) for the far-future forest world and some of Moebius’s comics. Miyazaki took the name Nausicaa from the character of Homer’s Odyssey but there is little direct connection to the Greek myth. He was more drawn towards the eccentric female character from the 12th century Japanese story The Lady Who Loved Insects, and the Minamata Bay mercury pollution in the 1960s, which had a huge impact on environmental protection in Japan.

As you can probably see in the pictures, Miyazaki went for large pages, similar to European style bande dessinée albums, which is unusual for manga, and he absolutely crammed them full of storytelling. With 1100 pages of that, this is a full, rich epic. His art style is influenced by Moebius, especially Moebius’s wordless comic Arzach, which impressed Miyazaki a lot and which I reviewed at an earlier date. The art has a pleasant rounded feel to it as you would find in European comics and the sympathetic faces that are found in the Ghibli movies, but it is also a bit sketchy and squiggly, and especially in the first chapters of the comic that causes some panels to be a bit unclear when he crams the backgrounds full of detail. The art matures and improves over the course of the comic. The large size edition is essential to follow the story well and appreciate the art fully.

All of this makes Nausicaä a really intriguing crossbreed between American science fiction, European and Japanese mythology and their respective art styles. And probably a nice stepping stone for trying out manga when coming from Western storytelling. Not to mention that you’ll be embarking on a work of great vision that can measure itself against epics like Dune.

Miyazaki worked on this for more than 10 years. It’s the work of a lifetime; his magnum opus. He started in 1982 and continued up to 1994. The anime movie came out in 1984 after only the first chapters of the manga were released. They were received to great acclaim, and that wave of enthusiasm basically kickstarted the Ghibli animation studio. So, the movie only features a part of the story. Not even the first third of the story. While Miyazaki went on to work on other Ghibli films such as Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Rosso (1992), he kept working on and off on the Nausicaä manga between the films whenever he had the time. The story evolved in the making as Miyazaki himself changed along with it, and the manga distilled and represents all of his interests.

Like Paul in Herbert’s Dune, Nausicaä is a bit of a Chosen One figure with a special connection to the environment. She has certain special psychic powers that allow her to listen to the spirits of animals and plants. Early on in the story she acquires a cat-like animal companion, Teto, whom she cares for, and her respect for the giant shuffling Ohmu arthropods borders on worship. She is also developed by Miyazaki as a very talented and loved leader, even though she is still a teenager, with a natural feeling for inspiring loyalty. Her concern about nature and its spirits gives her a caring, nurturing nature, and so she combines traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” traits. The comic idealises her to an unrealistic level, which feels a bit quaint in todays milieu of tortured antiheroes but it is an artistic choice that works for this type of epic fantasy. Also, Nausicaä’s more caring and sometimes vulnerable nature makes her a sympathetic hero who dodges the Hollywood cliche of the Strong Female Character who cannot show weakness.

The trope-like characters are perhaps the manga’s greatest weakness. Most of them are rather one-dimensional. Nausicaä is the clear heroine who can do no wrong, and she is surrounded by other archetypical people, such as a sword master, a young warrior, a couple of clear evil villains, and happy old pilots. For this reason, my enthusiasm for the story itself remained a bit muted. On the other hand, there are characters such as the warlike Princess Kushana and her right hand man, and certain Dorok priests, who show ambiguity and conflict in their emotions and are more interesting for it.

As an apparent messianic and self-sacrificial figure, Nausicaä has lead to a tension between a Japanese Animist and a Judeo-Christian interpretation of her. The comic features animistic themes early on, where the people of the Valley of the Wind seem to believe in a god of the wind. With the movie and its translations into English, a more Christian vision is presented of Nausicaä as a messianic figure and she even dies and is resurrected in the movie. Miyazaki hints at Christian themes too now and then in the comic, but when he returned to the comic after the film was completed, he also returned to the animist focus. Nausicaä is ultimately driven by her respect for nature, for the spirits that are found in nature, and that motivates her actions. The war between humans only causes her a lot of worry and conflicted emotions about her role in it. Think Game of Thrones with a heroine who sees the solution in the spirits of nature to set things right after all the kings have turned the world into a wasteland. Her heroic role is to form a reconnection between humanity and nature, like a shaman maiden.

And the story gets more complex than that, and far more complex than most science fiction stories that deal with environmentalism. Miyazaki gives us a forest of fungi and insects, deliberately going for a form that resists empathy and is dangerous to humans. Only someone like Nausicaä who has a sustained interest in nature and is willing to learn about it, moves beyond the preconceived notions that the rest of humanity holds. All of this is so much deeper than, say, the naive ideas of James Cameron’s Avatar movies. Humanity itself may be changed too, and the boundary between notions of purity and corruption may not be clear cut anymore. Miyazaki incorporated a level of philosophical considerations about nature that he himself was struggling with. The role of science is questioned next. We may need to accept that we cannot keep nature in stasis, or return it to what it once was. It evolves, and we with it. Some of the ancient science is unearthed by the dangerous Dorok empire, science that allows people to genetically engineer the fungus forests into a biological weapon to be used in war, with ambiguous results. Nausicaä fulfils the role of prophesied liberator in that country, but it is the Ohmu bugs in the end who are capable of a far greater sacrifice than the humans are, and prove themselves nobler than humanity.

Miyazaki doubling down on the animist elements was part of his own personal development. He tells in interviews how the continuous work on this comic over the years changed his personal views on life, politics and environmentalism. After finishing the comic, he poured these changed feelings about environmentalism into the movie Princess Mononoke (1997), which explores many of the same themes as Nausicaä with a strong focus on spirits in nature, war between humans, and is notably a dark film in the Ghibli catalogue with a lot of environmental destruction. Princess Mononoke has a lot of the material of Nausicaä that never made it into the movie.

I absolutely love the environmentalist focus in this epic fantasy. It is something we hardly ever see in the genre; most epic fantasy is very anthropocentric. My own feelings resonate with the idea that nature deserves space and respect and that it is even a place for spiritual connections and epiphanies, and essential for human survival. We forget a part of ourselves when we turn away from it. The epic concerns itself with that feeling of awe for nature and of homeland and belonging. And nature in Nausicaä isn’t pretty. It’s full of giant ugly insects and fungi. It kills people. Nature itself became twisted because of the pollution of war and human science, and it strikes back. And still we need it. The dominant Western modus is to make use of nature, sometimes even battle against it, and at best to be stewards of nature, but even that ignores how much we are part of it. What makes this epic so great is also that Miyazaki believed this and poured his heart into this and that makes it an artistic endeavour worth celebrating.

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Steven Erikson – The God is Not Willing (2021) Review


A fantastic title, wouldn’t you say? The God is Not Willing’s first objective is to make the reader get used to the idea that we are in fact back in the Malazan universe, and that the world has changed. It feels indeed a bit odd to return to the Malazan world after all the world-changing events of The Crippled God (2011). For better or worse, this novel has to deal with that past, and so do the characters inside it. This is in fact a major theme of the novel, of how the next generations of Malazans and Teblors and others have to deal with the after-effects of those momentous events of the past. And how key players from that past, such as Karsa, Coltaine, Icarium, Iskar Jakar and others have passed into legend or even worship. And you know what worship can do in this world when it comes to ascension.

Some reviewers have said that this book can be an entry point without having read the big Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I disagree. Ideally, you will need to understand about the Malazans, the Bridgeburners, the Imass, the Jaghut, the Azath, the Teblor, warrens, Holds, D’ivers, and the above mentioned characters, or none of this will make sense. And if you have read the main series, then it is a fascinating look at the decades after that time.

Set in the north of the Genabackan continent, we follow two storylines, which, for Erikson’s standards, isn’t a lot and makes for a sharply focused story. Constrained in the number of POV characters, perhaps, but not in the sense of epic scale. Because this part of the world is in trouble. The Jaghut ice fields in the north are melting, causing migrations of thawed Imass and a united warband of the Teblor tribes, spelling a lot of trouble for the Malazans south. Not to mention the apocalyptic floods to come. And all this while the Malazan Empire is in decline, especially in this far outpost.

And as you can expect from a Malazan novel, there are plenty of Malazan soldiers in it. The Malazan marines are one of few main groups of characters in this novel, and whenever it is their turn to show up, it is comedy hour. Erikson is on a roll with the funny banter between the soldiers; perhaps making this his funniest book to date. Stillwater, Blanket, Anyx Fro, Gruff, these are all soldier names that you are as yet unfamiliar with but within a few chapters will generate a smile. One name you will probably recognise: Spindle, with his smelly hairshirt. The Last Bridgeburner. 

The best new character in the book is Rant. A bastard son of Karsa Orlong who grew up in the little town at Silver Lake that Karsa and his two followers invaded in House of Chains (2002). Karsa’s actions loom large in this novel and Erikson on the one hand shows Karsa as a “God” revered by some, while the consequences of his actions have all been very bad in this part of the world. Rant is a beautifully realised complex character of a young naive boy who isn’t accepted anywhere as a half Human/Teblor hybrid, and is forced to grow up fast after fleeing Silver Lake. He isn’t stupid. He’s just young and from a rural place, and learns fast. His journey, in which he gradually loses his youthful innocence, is a very touching one. A great number of very emotionally complex scenes makes this one of the best character journeys that Erikson has written in his career. And none of it feels forced for the sake of drama, but as a natural part of the world that he built. 

Erikson again rises far above his fellow fantasy authors in the sense of time and place he creates with his precise ecological and geological descriptions, and with the fascinating anthropological details for all he peoples and races he creates, and finally with a sense of wonder about deep time and old magic to be discovered in forgotten places. He is Ursula K. Le Guin’s equal in that regard. By the end of the novel, he made me fall in love with the characters, stand in awe at some events and look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

There are some pretty salient themes in this book and I hesitate to talk much about them for fear of spoilers. But the main thing is that Erikson revisit some of his explorations of compassion and turns this book into a heartwarming story about loss, recovery, changing world-views and setting aside differences between peoples in the face of impending doom. The story develops first in a way that is very familiar to readers of the genre, and around the halfway point you might get the feeling that you know how the rest of the series will develop, but then Erikson turns the story on its head in a way that left me speechless.

All seems to be in balance in this book: the expert view on the landscapes and cultures, the magic and wonder, the philosophical musings, the epic scale and the comedy. This is Erikson at his best, and him at his best puts him at the very pinnacle of the genre. I missed this world.

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Voltaire – Micromegas (1752) Review

What’s this, a story from 1752? Jeroen, why do you have to be so boring and intellectual? Why do you only read stuffy books from the attic? Why can’t you be more hip? I know you all want me to talk about the latest Brandon Sanderson YA mush that people are paying hundreds of dollars to read, I know. And I got Voltaire’s story for free on Project Gutenberg like the Dutch cheapskate that I am. But I’ll try to make it worth your while. I think this is an interesting story to talk about. Micromegas is a story about a giant alien visiting Earth. And I think it is fascinating that we can go all the way back to 1752 and read a story about a giant alien visiting Earth.

The giant, Mr Micromegas, is 39 kilometres (24 miles) tall. When he was 450 years old and just leaving his childhood, he wrote a book about tiny insects of only 30 meters (100 feet) long that you cannot see with the naked eye. The religious Mufti of his planet declared his book heresy and Micromegas was banished for 800 years to travel the stars.

Around the year 1700, science was blowing everyone’ mind. Astronomers had already upended everyone’s idea about the solar system in the two centuries before, but in the 1700s people were still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the universe was really, really, mindbogglingly big. Dutch scientist Van Nieuwentyt calculated in 1715 that it would take a ship 700,000 years to sail to the sun, and that figure was circulated among the scientists and intellectuals of the time. At the same time, the use of the first microscopes came into vogue. Scientists Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered that there were tiny creatures living in a drop of water. What???

This all happened just before the turn of the century around 1700. Scientists began to get this creeping feeling that the universe was much larger and stranger than they had ever suspected, and that it was no longer possible for humanity to fully understand the universe and to encompass it with all our current knowledge. In 1750, the French philosopher Denis Diderot did an admirable attempt to collect all human knowledge in his Encyclopédie but it became a gargantuan affair, and he noted that we can’t really know if there are other men living on other planets. Which is quite the perspective shift.

The writers of the time responded to this new feeling of the unknown, of the alien, by writing books about extraordinary voyages (voyages extraordinaires) to the Moon or to hollow Earths, and by writing books in which things were really really big, or really really tiny. The two most famous of these books were Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Voltaire’s Micromegas (1752).

And Voltaire, he took the idea of the extraordinary voyages, and turned it on its head. Instead of a human voyaging to the Moon by means of a rocket or a balloon or what have you, he started his story with an alien who then voyaged to Earth to visit us. Nobody had ever written a story like that, and that’s why it is a keystone text in the history of science fiction, and literature in general, really. Voltaire gave it the subtitle “philosophical history”, which is a bit like Margaret Atwood saying she is writing “speculative fiction.”

But is it any fun to read? Yes, it certainly is! First of all, Voltaire is very witty and imaginative. He squeezed a lot of funny little details into the story. Secondly, the story is only 40 pages long or so, so it’s not an investment. Micromegas ends up on Saturn where he laughs at the dwarfs living there who are only 2 kilometres tall. Voltaire takes this opportunity to poke fun at a fellow French philosopher Fontenelle, who is represented by the Saturnian secretary of the Academy. Legend has it that Fontenelle could not appreciate the joke at all. Micromegas and the Dwarfs complain that they only have hundreds of senses and thousands of years to live, which is practically nothing. Over before you know it. You can hardly learn anything in that time, or make any plans.

Eventually, Micromegas uses a microscope to examine humanity, the way Van Leeuwenhoek looked at single-celled organisms. It’s a little story full of comedy and philosophy and I loved it.

“I see them,” they said at the same time, “look how they are carrying loads, stooping, getting up again.” They spoke like that, hands trembling from the pleasure of seeing such new objects, and from fear of losing them. The Saturnian, passing from an excess of incredulity to an excess of credulity, thought he saw them mating. “Ah!” he said. “I have caught nature in the act”. But he was fooled by appearances, which happens only too often, whether one is using a microscope or not.”

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Haruki Murakami – 1Q84, Book One (2009) Review


This is not an easy book to put in a box. Murakami wrote a kind of science fiction novel in which two main characters end up in a slightly alternate version of reality. It’s a form of slipstream fiction in which reality is suddenly strange. I will expand a bit on the speculative elements in this novel for the science fiction readers out there who are curious about picking this up. It is also a very big book, published originally in three parts in Japan but often as a single novel elsewhere. In general, Murakami’s books have gotten bigger and bigger as he matured as an author, and I am not sure if the length has any added value. I suspect not, but let’s read and find out. 

And I will review each part separately and consider it a trilogy. Because my Complete Trilogy edition has 1300+ pages and that is just too bloody much. And it is not called a trilogy for nothing.

Book One is the opening act of the story and introduces everything, but leaves us with a lot of questions. Aomame (“green pea”) is a young woman and an assassin, who takes on jobs to murder middle-aged men who molest their wives. She is also strangely sexually attracted to men of that age (and we get to know all about that). One day while on an assassination mission she slips into an alternate reality while hardly noticing it. Suddenly the police officers have different attire, and there are two moons, one of which the USA is building a base on. Aomame calls this alternate reality 1Q84, as she used to exist in the real world of the year 1984, and this new place is a big question-mark for her. This first Book doesn’t have any clear connections to Orwell’s novel, although it is mentioned often. The strangeness is not sociological in nature, so the connection to Orwell isn’t clear to me.

Tengo is our other main character. He is a math teacher and wannabe writer, and a bit of a pushover. One day he accepts a job to rewrite a short story originally written by an uncommunicative teenage girl. The short story is about strange events on a farm in which “Little People” emerge out of the carcass of a goat. There are hints that the girl didn’t write the story as fiction but that it actually happened.

A deep sense of mystery pulls you into the novel and keeps you reading. Murakami adds multiple odd things for both storylines to enhance that mystery. For Aomame’s story, her own odd character and her weird occupation with assassinations are unusual, and the situation that she is suddenly in some parallel universe. For Tengo, the strange teenage girl with strange mannerisms that he has to deal with, and the weird topic of the story that she wrote. The stories zip along nicely, and cross-references between the storylines keep us on our toes. The sense of mystery keeps building. Murakami has a great sense of pacing, and for letting scenes unfold in deliberate ways, and for always having something interesting to tell. Both the writing and translation are smooth, and it’s easy to just dip in and out of the novel.

Book One doesn’t get us very far, except for detailed backstories for all the major characters and deep building of the story-world. It’s a whole lot of setup. One thing we know is that there is a mysterious religious cult connecting Aomame and Tengo’s storylines. And that “Little People” thing that is connected with it, there is a real puzzle. 

The weird thing is that the storyline that ought to be the most interesting, in theory, was the least interesting to read about. Aomame’s journey is full of murder and wild sex, but Aomame herself is a bit flat as a character. She is very focused and ascetic (except when it comes to sex) and hard to connect with, and the story itself has surprisingly little tension. It is as if Murakami doesn’t really know how to write a young female character and fills up that lack with a lot of sex and murder, but he is sticking that onto a hollow mannequin of a character. Tengo’s story in contrast is about a mellow, passive writer who is dragged into a dicey situation step by step by his manipulative editor. It has a lot more going for it in terms of tension and mystery, and for Murakami it was clearly easier to create him. 

I am intrigued with all of it, though, and will happily continue with the rest of the series. 

Followed by Book Two and Three (link coming when I’ve reviewed them) –>

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Clark Ashton Smith – Zothique (1970) Review


Zothique is a collection of Clark Ashton Smith short stories and is the brainchild of legendary editor Lin Carter who, in the 1970s, edited the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series which became legendary for its quality and for its dusting off of old forgotten classics. So, while this book came out in 1970, the stories inside all date from the 1930s. This is a pretty special collection and features some of Clark Ashton Smith’s very best work. More than that, it is a thematic collection that highlights Smith’s huge influence on the fantasy genre, because this, my friends, might be the true start of the Dying Earth subgenre.

Zothique is the name of a fictional continent of Earth, set so far in the future that the world map has changed, the sun is red and dying and humanity has lost all its knowledge of earlier epochs. The world has regressed to a kind of dark, lugubrious fantasy setting, full of morose wizards, demon conjuring, idolatry and necromancy. It is one of the few settings that Smith returned to again and again for his creepy fantasy stories. Editor Lin Carter collected them together, added a map and even tried to put the stories in a chronological order as far as that made sense (but each story can be read on its own).

If you have read Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth (commonly regarded as the instigator of the Dying Earth subgenre and the big influence on Gene Wolfe and the Dungeons and Dragons game), you might recognise how similar those tales are to the description I gave above. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Vance has read Smith’s stories because the setting and subject matter are so similar. But where Smith’s stories were dark and serious and aimed for the cosmic horror of the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Vance twisted the idea into a drily funny comedy of wit and imagination. Zothique is thus the missing link between H.P. Lovecraft and Jack Vance.

Nearly every story features a sorcerer, and nearly every story sees something raised from the dead. Witchcraft is intimately connected to death and decay here, and love. Some stories are about fatal love spells by mean-spirited queens or princesses, and most stories end with some demonic disaster and a horrible end to some morose wizard or decadent king. Descriptions are lush. Settings are often deserts and crumbling ruins of cities, with a sort of Oriental feeling to them, which is probably inspired by the writings of Lord Dunsany. Zothique may well be a play on the word exotic. Just give it a French spin to make it sound even more so. Zothique c’est fantastique. 

Most of the time with old fantasy writing, as with watching very old movies, I respect the stories for their place in history and try to regard them relative to the time in which they were written, but I don’t find them quite as easy to read as modern novels. With Smith’s stories though, I find that I genuinely enjoy reading them. Smith writes with a sense for the dramatic that makes his stories truly interesting to follow. He has great ideas, and his poetic prose is quite beautiful and flows easily.

Favourite stories in the collection:

  • “Xeethra” (1934)
  • “Necromancy in Naat” (1936)
  • “The Empire of the Necromancers” (1932)
  • “The Charnel God” (1934)
  • “The Dark Eidolon” (1935)
  • “The Last Hieroglyph” (1935)
  • “The Voyage of King Euvoran” (1933)

See also the Penguin Classic The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies.

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R.A. Lafferty – Fourth Mansions (1969) Review


This is a long review. It’s Lafferty.

Another crazy Lafferty novel that blew my mind. He has the greatest imagination of all science fiction writers. In this novel too, the writing is energetic, hyperactive even, but always controlled and full of humor and off the cuff invention. A love for writing radiates from the pages, and it gave me the feeling that Lafferty is both incredibly amused by his own writing and also driven by a deep need to get his philosophies out. I inhaled this novel as if it was restorative for my imagination on a spiritual level. 

I will try to summarise the beginning of the plot and the overarching idea of the novel, but it is really eccentric, layered and complex. In essence it is an eschatological tale about the end of the world. Against that backdrop we follow a journalist who is a goofy simpleton and he is stuck between four different psychic secret societies who are fighting it out to take control over the world, and all of them are having an impact on the journalist, who in the process either reaches enlightenment or was mad all along. It’s a bit like G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, on acid. Like Chesterton writing a bugs bunny cartoon but based on obscure Christian mysticism. And a precursor to the Illuminatus! (1975) trilogy by Shea and Wilson.

This is the story of Fred Foley, a journalist with good eyes but a simple brain. His girlfriend happens to be part of a secret society of seven psychics, the Harvesters, who want to wreak radical change on the world. The psychics try out their powers on Fred Foley first and make him believe that the Secretary of State’s right-hand man, Carmody Overlark, is in fact a resurrected Egyptian civil servant of 1350 B.C. and also a Mamluk officer of around 500 years ago. Later, in a seance, the psychics direct their brainweave energy towards the public intellectual Michael Fountain to jolt him into becoming their leader. Fountain repulses them and the brain-weave is accidentally redirected to a Mexican named Miguel Fuentes instead. Fuentes immediately becomes a maniac and starts collecting paramilitaries to build an army to take over the world.

The journalist Foley in the meantime discovers that the Secretary of State’s right-hand man Carmody Overlark was indeed an ancient Egyptian and is part of a secret cabal of immortals, the Returnees, who also try to control the world. Foley seeks help and ends up at the Patricks, a hidden society of patriarchs who are actually self-sufficient recluses who guard the world for God and form an opposing force. That’s when things get really out of hand. The Harvesters enlist an actual demon into their group. The Patricks are helped by ape-dog ghosts named Plappergeists that can only be seen from the corner of your eye and make obscene gestures. Fred Foley matures through the book as he started out as a goof and becomes a more and more mature, intelligent and forceful character as he is pushed back and forth by the four forces. There is no science-fictional explanation for this; only a mystical one.

All of what I just wrote is just the surface level plot, but there are layers of symbolism underneath. Fred Foley (or, the Fool) represents common humanity. The great unwashed. The four secret societies each represent a mental influence on the fool, the common man, and Lafferty presents them as a type of animals. The Patricks (badgers) are conservatives and guardians, representing entrenched ways and power structures. The Harvesters (pythons) are liberals and seek radical change. The immortal Returnees (toads) are communists and hedonists without conscience and Miguel and his army (falcons) are fascists. Much of the symbolism in this novel Lafferty took from the book The Interior Castle written by Saint Teresa of Avila in 1588, a work of Christian mysticism that describes a meditative journey of the soul towards the glory of God. The book describes the soul as a castle of seven mansions, and the world outside the castle is populated by snakes and toads. To journey to the innermost mansion is to become one with God. Lafferty’s book situates the world at a crisis point in the fourth mansion, if I understand it correctly.

There are layers upon layers of symbolism in this story, and just like with his novel Past Master (1968) I am not sure I understood all of it, but it did feel like a cohesive whole. It did feel like Lafferty was in complete control at all times. There are invented poems about badgers, pythons and toads in here, where Lafferty gives them attributes that again match their political stances. The Patricks are presented as hobos or homeless people, but guard knowledge of deep substance and entranceways into the real world. They protect fountains, which are equated with spirituality or wisdom, but in the case of Michael Fountain and Miguel Fuentes a source of spiritual fountaining that has been derailed, perhaps. Much of the story is open to interpretation on such deeper layers. Sometimes one chapter works like a piece of mythology for the next chapter where Lafferty sneakily jumps to meta-level storytelling and back.

Each of the four forces give their own interpretations for the state of the world and how they are key in the whole thing. But I think Lafferty speaks most directly to us through the words of the Patricks. He seems to be making a case that modern interpretation of religion are too scared of the monsters inside us and if we do not incorporate them, we externalise them into the outside world, and so cannot evolve. It is the snakes, toads, falcons and badgers that are part of us and push us to the next mansion in the interior castle, or something like that. 

“There is a holiness in a whole person or a whole world,” the patrick Croll said. “The veriest monsters inside us may be sanctified. They were put there by Him who is ‘Father of Monsters’ also. What right have we to cut them out of us? Who are we to edit God? We cut strong things out of ourselves and suppress them, and the rocks and clouds will give birth to them again. We dry up our interior fountains and they gush out again, exteriorly and menacingly. We cannot live without monsters’ blood coursing through us. Only to the whole person is life worth living and death worth dying. Here in Fourth Mansions we must be whole or we must be nothing.”
“Where do you get those curious phrases, Croll?” Freddy Foley asked him
“From the manual. As patrick, I must recite certain passages every morning.”
“But aren’t the patricks themselves monsters?”
“Yes, I believe so. But we’re the monsters under the man-symbol.”

Lafferty is constantly toying with language, and from one paragraph to the next he builds symbols and meanings like sandcastles. He’s playing his favourite game, but it is always directed towards his deeper themes. Take a random part here in a chapter where the Harvesters, typified as snakes, want to mind-meld together to become the next incarnation of the Holy Spirit. It turns into a right mess. Lafferty starts out his chapter with the Harvesters exclaiming that the original breath of life, the “original mutation” was a hoax, a joke, that simply never went away, and then they claim kinship to the snake from the Garden of Eden:

Hondo Silverio was now into the weave with his mottled-green humor and his ancient nobility. “You forget sometimes,” he had said once, “that the first motley, the first mottled-green clown suit, was a snake suit. We were the original humorists. Our sudden scaring of people, that’s the best practical joke of all, and it never wears out.”
And what he said now was “We need even the very first types for this induced mutation and don’t forget that the original person-type was a double one, and that the nobler and more humorous half of that original father image was the snake.”
A noble snake was Hondo, but he seemed to crawl less than the others.

This is not an important point in the novel. I just took it as an example, and Hondo isn’t actually a snake, only metaphorically. Or maybe he is in disguise as a human, in a Native American mythological sort of way. There is a lot to unpack in each paragraph, depending on how deep you want to go. Lafferty often straddles that science fantasy/mythology boundary. Lafferty constantly weaves in and out of framings, as if the basic plot structure is submerged in a bubbling cauldron of associations. He associates the snake with weaving and with the double helix of DNA, and that with a physical, Humanist focus on the body, on bodily mutation, which does not turn out to be the answer for becoming the Holy Spirit. The chapter is called Helical Passion and Saintly Sexpot. Lafferty maintains the same sandcastle of associations for the duration of each chapter, and so every chapter is like a little short story with its own topology. A little jewel.

I don’t share Lafferty’s politics and I am not really on board with Catholicism, so from that perspective I find his strong focus on these themes a bit alienating. In the later chapters he started preaching a bit too much. And yet he is one of my favourite authors simply because of how unique and intricate and fascinating his writing is. He is some kind of genius. I am still hoping to find a true masterpiece for the ages, though, because his flakiness and slipperiness as a writer also works against him. On the one hand the stories feel chaotic and unclear, and throw people off because the characters and worldbuilding aren’t outlined clearly. It’s like Lafferty outgrew that type of storytelling when he was 10 years old and ever since just wanted to play with it. On the other hand you can reread them again and again and discover new facets to them. In any case, this Lafferty novel was once again a very memorable experience.

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Alan Moore – Watchmen (1986-87) Review

I feel out of my depth talking about this graphic novel, because I am just not so familiar with the history of American superhero comics. I can’t be a proper spokesperson for this work, as I do not have a good grasp on the historical significance of it. What I will do is simply offer some observations and impressions as I read it, as a casual visitor to the superhero genre.

I liked this very, very much. I would say that Watchmen is the best deconstruction and reconstruction of the concept of the superhero that I have ever read. I watched the TV Show The Boys (2019-), loosely based on the comic The Boys by Garth Ennis, and I realised how much in debt that series is the Watchmen comic. Alan Moore invented a whole new ensemble cast of hitherto unknown superheroes for his express purpose of breaking down the superhero tropes, and that works very well in order for us to look at the concept from an intellectual distance. I think that if Moore had taken established characters like Superman that his goal or vision for the novel would have become muddied, whereas now, Watchmen stands alongside the rest of the superhero genre as a comment on it. It is very silly, therefore, that there is a sequel (Doomsday Clock (2017-19)) that ties the Watchmen universe to the rest of the DC universe.  

From the moment you start reading Watchmen, the comic does many, many things simultaneously. It is a deeply layered narrative. We have the narration of Rorschach and the flashbacks of the behaviour of The Comedian, and both show us superheroes with very questionable morality. The Comedian was a nihilist with little empathy, and Rorschach considers everyone in the city as vermin and wields his morality as a weapon. We see how history would have been different with superheroes, and not for the better. Also, there are chapters from a fictional book written by the old hero Nite Owl, appropriately titled “Under the Hood”, which deconstructs the origin story of a superhero in stark psychological realism that leaves little room for romanticism. 

There is an immediate feeling of being in the hands of a talented writer. The narration by Rorschach is compelling, the characters are all deeply realised, the pacing is consistent. Moore uses all sorts of narrative styles, from biographical writing to pulpy adventure stories to interviews to news clippings. There is an extremely close communication between writer and artist (Dave Gibbons), as much of the writing is reflected in the panels themselves in the form of symbols and objects. Sometimes, two narratives march on through the panels hand in hand, such as a pulpy pirate adventure and the modern day metropolis, with echoes between these narratives in how the plot develops on an emotional level towards disaster. 

In the background of all this, there is a huge amount of foreshadowing for what is going to happen towards the end of the story. This makes the comic excellent for rereading. There is the countdown of the doomsday clock, counting down every chapter. There are the lines people say to each other, about certain heroes, that can be reinterpreted on a reread. And a lot of information is communicated visually. Telling lines are put in panels with specific closeups on people that just frames exactly what will happen later, even if you don’t realise it on a first reading. This visual language also extends to recurring symbols, like the smiley face with the blood splatter on it, which stands like a visual metaphor for the tainted image of the heroic and happy superhero of old.

The story works as a window into the psychological occupations of postwar United States. Dr. Manhattan clearly represents the atomic bomb, and what the creation and the use of the atomic bomb did to the American psyche. The entire comic is preoccupied with it and it’s impressive how Moore ramps up the feeling of dread for a looming 3rd World War. Atomic bombs in general feature heavily in American comics because it is a thing to have confused feelings about and something that has to be explored and digested from various angles.

The final chapter is pure brilliance, and not all that easy to parse. Everything comes together: the huge buildup of tension over a nuclear armageddon that makes us question whether we should be happy with Veidt’s actions. Dr. Manhattan’s newfound belief in the sanctity of human life after his Mars trip, versus Rorschach’s absolute refusal to compromise his morality. It’s the same conflicting feelings that puts the absolute horror of using an atom bomb against the knowledge that it ended the pacific theatre of the Second World War and so stopped the bloodshed there. And what a brilliant way to utilise the whole idea of superheroes to explore these themes.

This was very, very good.

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