Ursula K. Le Guin – The Word for World is Forest (1976) review

8/10

If you are a fan of Le Guin’s writing and you want more of that clever, crystal-clear prose, effortless worldbuilding and sharp observations, you can’t really go wrong with any of her books, including this one. And those are reasons enough – they were my reasons for picking up this book, and Le Guin delivers that to satisfaction. But this one is unlike most of Le Guin’s novels and some context is needed. 

So, on the planet New Tahiti, humans have arrived to establish a new colony. The planet is all ocean and forested islands, and in those forests lives a small, non-violent humanoid race with green hair, belittlingly called creechies. The colony is spearheaded by Captain Davidson, a military man who is so absurdly despicable that he is a clear caricature. Sexist, racist and with a singular amoral focus on cutting down all the trees, exploit the land and waltz over the creechies like the advanced human civilisation that we are. We got no room for those primitive monkeys; they don’t even work as a labour force! The creechies, the Noble Savages that they are, have no choice but to defend themselves in the end, and the violence changes their once-peaceful culture for the worse. If you have seen James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), you know how these stories go. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron has read this book before filming.1

Such two-dimensional character work and simplistic morality that we find here is not what Le Guin is known for, and wasn’t expected following on A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Le Guin is very aware of how preachy her book sounds and she mentions in a foreword that she regrets this, and explains how this was a consequence of the times. Full of pent-up anger about the Vietnam War, writing this angry book was her means of releasing those feelings and a caricature like Captain Davidson was an archetype that jumped straight from a subconscious level.

I know some readers will nope out of this review at this point, but look: Le Guin’s prose is still witty and lively enough to make this an interesting journey. Some of the chapters are narrated from the perspective of Captain Davidson and I could only read these as a satire on militaristic, capitalistic masculinity. It may not be marketed and sold as a satire, but I honestly thought it was funny and exaggeration is a common satirical technique. Know that Terry Pratchett was a writer full of anger, like Le Guin. Other chapters are from the perspectives of the creechies, and Le Guin invented an interesting culture for them. They spend half of their time in a “dream-time” state, multiple times per day, which they use to process their concerns and make sense of the world. Their perspective adds something unique to the genre. They’re more than just Ewoks. (But I wouldn’t be surprised if Lucas has read this book before filming.)

Add in some interplanetary politics, scientific inquiry and a tragic picture of how creechie resistance leads to a hardening of creechie culture – a loss of innocence – and this little book offers a lot more than a tale of noble savages against the oppressors. I liked this a lot more than I expected, especially the final pages, which are surprisingly powerful. Now, if The Word for World is Forest is truly responsible for Ewoks and Avatar, then it still has a lot to answer for. The good news is that it is not like these creations; it is better. 

  1. There is another book that is an even more literal predecessor of Avatar, also written in the same period as Le Guin’s book, and that is Alan Dead Foster’s Midworld (1975). The Word for World is Forest was published in book form in 1976, but Midworld didn’t precede it. Le Guin’s novella was first published as part of a collection in 1972. The Return of the Jedi and FernGully also came afterwards.

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Review: The Bonehunters (2006) by Steven Erikson

9.5/10

The start of The Bonehunters finds many of our characters in unfamiliar territory with regards to who they are and what they are looking for in life. These quests dictate a lot of the plot progression, making it a more character-driven novel than other Malazan entries. Apsalar made her choices and now, although doing Cotillion’s bidding, feels lost. Crocus (or Cutter) has changed much, but isn’t sure into what. Karsa Orlong moved on from his stay in Raraku, and is looking for a purpose. Heboric has been given a new purpose by Treach, but doesn’t know yet why. The army of the Apocalypse and Tavore’s Malazan army likewise started on new journeys. Transformations have occurred for everyone in the previous books, or are occurring, leaving everyone’s future an open question. Ascended powers all feel that a great conflict is on the horizon, and fate will soon catch up with everyone to shape their answers.

The Bonehunters is set up for a daunting task: bringing characters and plotlines together from the first five books in the series. It is mostly a direct sequel to House of Chains (or that one was mostly a setup for The Bonehunters), but also brings in Dujek Onearm’s host from Memories of Ice and the Tiste Edur from Midnight Tides. There are so many characters that it takes 150 pages just to give a refresher on all of them and give their first scenes.

It is the most vibrant of Malazan books so far in the series. It is action-packed and, notably, has a lot of humour that Erikson spreads out lavishly over all the plotlines. Whether we read the bickering of the Malazan soldiers or of Apsalar’s companions, or the twisted speech of Iskaral Pust or Greyfrog, the series has not been this much of a comedy. I was delighted to see Fiddler, Kalam and Quick Ben together again, and Fiddler’s character comes more to life than he did in House of Chains. Paran gains confidence in his role. Apsalar makes for a satisfying point-of-view character to follow and Karsa is always welcome. Only Icarium and Mappo’s ongoing situation began to feel repetitive, but not for long. Erikson also clearly gained experience in pacing his scenes and exposition.

Stop inching your way to the door, Bonehunters, because I am not done yet showering praise on you. The intricacy and detail of Erikson’s worldbuilding is something to behold. From the personal histories to epoch-spanning conflicts to historical developments of magic and its power structures, a reader is bound to become a Malazan scholar simply by reading the series. Its complexity and depth is unrivalled in the genre – perhaps only Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth history comes close. One thing that makes the Malazan series so compelling to read is simply to learn more about its world and how everything is connected. Whereas Tolkien just tells you things, Erikson has a way of giving pieces of the puzzle, like potsherds in an archeological dig, that makes inquisitive minds come up with theories. Every scene adds a new shiny facet to the whole and the devil is in the details. No gods will step forward and clearly explain the conflicts of the series to one another. Instead, the ravings of a possessed man might suddenly recontextualize the struggles as one between the power of blood and abstract ideas of justice. Or a scene of a dog gnawing on a soldier’s bone of a previous army becomes a metaphor for one army laying claim to the previous one’s role. It really pays off to pay attention, and this kept me hooked through the meandering bits of the series.

Erikson himself has agreed that this could be seen as two books. Two books in one, with a major climax starting a third of the way in, followed by an aftermath and a long buildup to another climax at the end. An argument could me made that the first part could have been added to the end of House of Chains, but it is hard saying that one solution would have been better than the other, especially since the rest of The Bonehunters involves the spiritual rebirth of characters who went through those climactic moments, making their journey contained within this novel. Nevertheless, The Bonehunters feels meandering at times and this is a consequence of characters going on their individual journeys. This entry feels like a space set aside in the series for Erikson to rake things together and to let story threads wander and gradually converge. And every time characters meet and threads merge, you get that little feeling of delight and amazement that the story is clicking together on a higher level.

Between all the action, Erikson gives us deeper looks into his characters. Quick Ben, for example. We see his mean streak as a child. He was the wolf who gave his family members nightmares. And near the end of that same chapter, his sister talks about the sweetest wolf in the world. Quick Ben is dangerous, a wolf amongst sheep, but he is sweet. Or another chapter in which Mappo Runt relates a little tale about his ancestors. Erikson weaves it with finesse into the rest of the story. The same goes for a grander theme about the misuse of faith and how it can become twisted into blind fanaticism or egotistical focus on one’s own needs.

Like other Malazan books before it, it is in danger of doing too much. I have mentioned only a fraction of the characters. There are still too many point-of-view characters, especially among the single-name soldiers, who hardly ever get a good introduction and therefore are nothing but a bunch of names floating on the page. Erikson could have dumped half of them without losing the effects he was going for, I think. It’s not as if there isn’t enough going on in this novel. Jam-packed with epic scenes, shocking reversals of fate, rebirths and resurrection, character arcs for everyone and touching moments of pathos, this is among the most stunning fantasy novels I have ever read, with the material of an entire trilogy inside. 

The previous five books laid the groundwork and The Bonehunters completes its daunting task exceptionally well, over and above what we could have hoped for. It gives greater weight to events in previous books, the entire world lies reconfigured and Hood knows what will happen next.

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The Dark Side of Booktube

You know what Booktube is. It’s youtubers who talk about books. The kind of videos they produce looks a bit like this:

  • Book haul
  • Book haul
  • Weekly wrap-up
  • TBR video
  • Book haul
  • Book haul
  • Monthy wrap-up
  • Review
  • Book haul
  • Book haul
  • TBR video
  • Weekly wrap-up

YouTubers started reviewing books, and some of them got very popular and started producing other kinds of content, like the type of videos I listed above. Some booktubers have stopped reviewing books altogether and just produce vlogs with lists. Book haul videos are sometimes not even books that the booktuber bought themselves, but books they have received in the mail from followers. They receive piles of books, all the time, and if there are any interesting books in there that they mention they have received, you can’t expect a review of it, because no one can read all of these books. It makes little sense to me why you show the books that you have obtained if you’re not going to read them or review them, except of course to show appreciation for receiving them. But then all you’re doing is pointing covers at the camera without having in-depth discussions on books.

I am exaggerating a bit. But only a bit.

Almost every booktuber these days has a Discord server. Which is a dedicated forum/chat-room for the channel, and if the channel is big enough, hundreds if not thousands of viewers congregate on these Discord servers to talk about books. This is where most book talk on the internet takes place nowadays. This sounds appealing and exciting, and it can be fun, but it is also superficial because individual messages are quickly lost in the cacophony. The server also creates a culture of sucking up to the leader. The booktuber is lord and ruler over these servers, the eye of the storm, the celebrity, the Influencer, the big Personality around which the community revolves. Among those thousands of followers on the server, there will be loads of people hoping for a short interaction with the booktuber, a moment of recognition. The server is the booktuber’s personal universe. Whenever the booktuber receives a critical or nasty comment on the YouTube channel, that comment will be copy-pasted to the discord server so that a horde of Yes-Men and Yes-Women can rage over that comment and pump up the booktuber’s ego.

Add to that the earning model of Patreon, where people can give creators like booktubers a monthly few dollars for their work. Get enough people paying and you can be a youtuber full-time. Paying a booktuber on Patreon comes with Discord privileges. Thus a hierarchy is created on the Discord server in which the Patreon people become de facto moderators and inner circle of the celebrity. The booktuber, of course, feels that it is only fair to restrict his/her precious time to interacting with patreons on the server, with the end result that as a follower you will receive personal interaction with the big Personality if you pay for it. It’s a bit like paying Instagram influencers to talk to you. The adoring crowd on the server is an excellent pool to milk that model. Newly starting booktubers see the appeal to becoming the centre of attention and earn money, so they set up Discord servers from the start in which only a few people show up and it is a bit pathetic.

The type of content that the booktuber produces on YouTube is linked to this whole sociological feedback loop. Patreons and other followers send books and other material to the booktuber so that they get mentioned by name in the next book haul video. You could be famous. You could be part of the in-crowd. And I can’t blame booktubers for all of this. If people start paying you for your content and start sending you stuff for free, it is only natural and friendly to give them that recognition. But there is still a nauseating celebrity culture going on. And less actual book talk.

The good news is that as a viewer you can ignore all of this if you want to. Watch the videos that interest you and follow readalong threads on Discord to talk about the latest chapter you read. But other than that, social media sucks!

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Dune (2021) and mini-reviews of 10 other recent films

Dune (2021). It is very good. But far from perfect, and not even Villeneuve’s best. As an adaptation it is very faithful to the source material, which is hugely satisfying as a fan of the book, and it’s a feast for the eyes. Visually is one of the most stunning films I have ever seen. Villeneuve’s style here is a clear continuation from what he gave us with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. It is also very dependent on those visuals, on effects, locations and composition. There’s very little room for good dialogues and the actors aren’t given many opportunities for impressive acting, because most of that time is taken up by slow-motion and soulful staring at each other, or into the distance. What the characters were thinking at those times wasn’t always clear. Also, the music by Hans Zimmer falls squarely into that category of “ethnic wailing” without recognisable themes and held no interest for me. Scenes sometimes weren’t given enough time to unfold, or during interesting moments would suddenly cut away to another shot of silent staring, making the film feel both slow and too rushed at the same time. I still walked away hugely impressed, but that was mostly because of the effort spent on making it all look so great, and because Villeneuve gives us a very alien future that is scary and powerful. But ask me about my favourite scene and I wouldn’t know what to say, because no individual scene stood out as truly memorable.

The Suicide Squad (2021). Crazy supervillains with a dollop of absurdist comedy. I’d say the film works for about 50% of its efforts, which is still an improvement on the previous Squad film. Some of it is cute, some of it is trying too hard. The Harley Quinn stuff is still all over the place. And I don’t understand why John Cena is a thing; he has the charisma of a bull. The big baddie was the… star… of the show.

Old (2021). M. Night Shyamalan is such an odd filmmaker. For a short moment, the movie works pretty well. It has an interesting idea for a story, interesting camera angles, an ok buildup of tension. But also many, many moments of excruciatingly bad dialogue and unnatural acting. The individual scenes are a mess of all sorts of camera and sound techniques and crazy editing, strange zooms and close-ups, to the point that it made me dizzy. And it is like Shyamalan has no sense of normal realistic behavior, even on the level of simple human interactions. Watching this is like listening to the ravings of a madman.

The Green Knight (2021). A mesmerising film, which great sets, great sound design, great shot composition, great acting. Just altogether a work of art. It reminded me of the movie Macbeth (2015) with Michael Fassbender. The storytelling, which I’m sure will be considered slow and boring by many, is subtle but it is present, communicated through gestures, omens and other visual cues. Some active interrogation is needed of what is going on. Once Gawain starts his journey, the story becomes more episodic. This is where attention starts to wane. But each little adventure has to do with Gawain’s knightly virtues and has striking characters and locations. All in all, it is not for everyone, but if you enjoy the beauty of a technical masterpiece and figuring out themes from subtle storytelling, you may find it as beautiful as I do.

Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021). This movie – this insane movie – must be one giant joke. It is too competently made to be a result of inexperience. It is some kind of Nicolas Cage worship of madness, written and created around him. This is what it must be like to inhabit Cage’s dreams at night, if he were to dream about a Japanese Mad Max future. Expect everything to be crazy. Crazy sets, crazy actors and crazy costumes. There is some kind of Hiroshima commentary in it and I could get all intellectual about it, but I won’t, because I didn’t give a crap about any of it.

Free Guy (2021). The thing with video game movies is that computer logic is always thrown overboard in favour of spectacle, and in a cyberspace world were everything is possible, only the most popular references are inserted for the audience. Call them Jeroen’s Laws for video game movies. For most of the runtime it is entertaining, albeit a bit derivative of movies like The Lego Movie, but it goes overboard with the silly logic near the end.

— 2019 —

Ford v Ferrari (2019). I don’t give a crap about cars, or racing, but this is one hell of a movie. It has a great heartfelt story about eccentric and brilliant guys. Lots of humor and good acting, especially by Christian Bale in a personage that we don’t often see him. Damon is excellent as well as the guy stuck between business and managing Miles (Bale). It’s a story of individual genius against bureaucracy, against design by committee. About friendship and honor where honor is due.

Tolkien (2019). What is the most interesting about this film is everything that is missing from it. Like Tolkien’s friendship with CS Lewis, and the Inklings group, and the influence of Catholicism on his outlook on life. No wonder that the Tolkien Estate did not endorse the film (but then again, every biopic is a dramatisation and not an accurate representation of someone’s life, and an official endorsement might have signified too much, so don’t take that rejection too hard). But what’s left is terribly uninspired. It is a by-the-numbers film that is so unsubtle that it never makes me forget that I am watching a movie. It has the kind of writing that constantly insists that we are watching a film about a writer, with lines like “real life isn’t like stories, mother” and “Maybe there is a treasure at the end of your quest, young Tolkien.” Who could stand a whole film of that? It shows a very shallow exploration of character. None of the scenes are interesting or gripping, just bland. Scenes in the trenches of WWI were badly directed, with the actors lying around in the dirt with uninterested looks on their faces. It needed some of that spirit that The Theory of Everything (2014) had (and they copied the template), but there was no sense of tension or tragedy to carry the story, only the most hackneyed ideas about where Tolkien’s inspiration came from. 

Booksmart (2019). A highschool comedy (and drama, a bit) that is really creative. And it’s just really well made, well shot and well acted. All the emotional scenes, the tender moments, are the best parts. The comedy is more hit and miss. A bit too absurd in a few parts with the obligatory drugs scenes, but it’s a matter of taste. It’s not a one-note film and has some of everything.

It Chapter Two (2019). Lots of talent in this movie: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Skarsgard. But this movie has a couple of major problems. First, it is two hours 49 minutes long. Two hours and 49 minutes! Secondly, after the first half hour the CGI becomes so ridiculous that it isn’t scary but funny. On the positive side, Pennywise is great and the ways it merges past and present are inventive. But that also leads to a third problem: the repetitive nature of the flashbacks and scares. Once you, as an audience member, see that the film is working down a list, then that is effectively the death knell for the immersion. A shame, because it has enough interesting material to make a good film out of.

— 2018 —

Under the Silver Lake (2018). Los Angeles is some kind of strange dreamworld here, full of conspiracies. Lots of subtext in every scene. The story is full of performances, secret messages and voyeurism, all facets of a single LA sickness. Lots of inventive filmmaking, but the story is just weird. Which is why I liked it. The reasons for some scenes I can only guess at, but the mystery kept me engaged, that and the arresting images and the comedy. It’s created more for the joy of analysis and mystery than for anything else.

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Review: R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920) by Karel Capek

7/10

R.U.R. (1920) is famous in science fiction history for giving us the first instance of the word ‘robot’. It is not the first work ever written to feature an artificial person, but the word ‘robot’ was first coined by Karel Capek’s brother Josef. R.U.R. is not a novel, it is a play of about 60 pages.

It is interesting to dive a little deeper into this. Nowadays, almost every robot story in science fiction starts with the robot being indentured and soulless and ends with some form of freedom or recognition for the robot. That’s the standard arc for robot stories, isn’t it? Now, see where the word robot comes from and its connotations. Robot referred to the peasant class in end-19th century Czechia, and these peasants were not much more than serfs, forced to live a life of drudgery for a quarter of the year for their landlords. When Karel Capek was a teenager, these Czech peasants organised themselves into an agrarian political party and promptly dominated the elections. In Capek’s perception, a robot was a serf on the road to liberty, and that concept still echoes through in today’s robot stories.

It is amazing how R.U.R. hits it on the head with everything one can say about the topic of robots in a small amount of pages. The play has three acts that skip through decades in which we see the evolution (and disaster) of robots in society. Honestly, it is like Capek took Mary Shelley’s monster of Frankenstein with the commentary on man playing God, added the idea of mass-production and so created the robot idea. R.U.R. is the missing link between Frankenstein (1818) and Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), and all Capek had to do was add the idea of production line work in factories. Interestingly, Rossum is a play on the Czech word rozum, which means mind or reason. Let that stand for the Enlightenment which gave us industrialisation and factory work, and Rossum’s Universal Robots is translated as Reason’s Universal Serfs.

But Jeroen, isn’t this a stuffy old book? Is it still readable today? Well, there are some terribly dated gender interactions, but Capek is also funny and lighthearted in his dialogues. It is a satire of the robotage of peasants, after all, and has plenty of wit and philosophy. I think it is still worth a read, but mostly for historical interest. Asimov didn’t like it, and created his Laws of Robotics to prevent the situations that happen in the play.

For the other story in this collection, War with the Newts, I will write a separate review.

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Review: Prelude to Foundation (1988) by Isaac Asimov

6/10

Warning: do NOT make this your first Foundation novel. It will not give a good introduction and will spoil later books for you. Please start with the original trilogy from the 1950s. Publication order is best.

When Asimov was asked by his publisher to write more Foundation novels, the idea of a prequel would not have been hard to come up with. After all, the first Foundation novel starts at a juncture in time when the great and old mathematician Hari Seldon puts his plan in motion for the establishment of the Foundation, and after that we only see Seldon in short pre-recorded appearances. His name towers over the whole series, but as readers we hardly know anything about him. The same goes for Trantor, the world-covering city where he lived. We never really see it in its heyday except for a short chapter at the beginning of the series. A Foundation prequel therefore offers tremendous opportunities for interesting storytelling and world-building. 

So, how does Asimov take up these opportunities?

Set 30 years before the start of Foundation (1951), young academic Hari Seldon is called to the Emperor Cleon I to explain about his theory of psychohistory. The theory is merely a theoretical idea, a brainstorm, and Seldon doesn’t believe it has any practical value at all, to the chagrin of the Emperor. He is dismissed, only to get pursued by competing agencies trying to get their hands on him. Seldon as a character is… pretty much the same as every other Asimov character. It’s hard to describe him past his occupation. They all talk the same. But he is young and away from home, (presumably) intelligent and easily influenced. 

The story is a flight from one sector of Trantor to another, showing us facets of the great world city. Seldon is partnered up with a woman, Dors, who looks after him and romantic tension increases between them. Meanwhile, Seldon is wracking his brain to find a way to make psychohistory practicable, while mystery deepens about the motivations of those who help him and who are after him. If I lay it out like this, it sounds more exciting than it actually is to read. Asimov is not much of a thriller writer. The dialogues are all a bit long-winded and tension is not cultivated in the text. And what about the world-building? Some of the Trantor cultures have a Jack Vancian flavour to them but lack Vance’s sardonic wit. Asimov’s rational, analytical tone conveys no flavour of mood. The world-building is inserted in patches whenever Hari and Dors move around, and none of it really bowls me over. 

The two Foundation sequels (Foundation’s Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986)) were an opportunity for Asimov to tie this universe to the robot novels, and no doubt he thought that this prequel offered another opportunity to do so. The way I see it, he sacrificed Hari Seldon’s story to crowbarring in more robot stuff. His story serves to make references to other novels. Although, I also understood that the next book, Forward the Foundation (1992) deals with large parts of Hari’s life, so if we take Prelude as just a… well… a prelude… then it makes sense that the story doesn’t cover much time.

The book is dull. Asimov’s forte is good ideas, but when there are none, then nothing else works out because his characters, prose and plotting are all terribly pedestrian. On top of that, he turns Seldon into an idiot. The motivations he gives Seldon for his idiotic decisions are flimsy and unconvincing. I ended up not liking Seldon and not enjoying his journey.

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Four SF/Fantasy works that feature the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel by Peter Bruegel the Elder

Please tell me underneath which I have forgotten to add to this list.

Tower of Babylon (1990) short story by Ted Chiang

The only story on this list that shows the tower as being built. In Chiang’s head it is a construction megaproject, but inside an outdated cosmology. The tower reaches such heights that the sun itself circles lower than its top. What happens when the builders reach the vault of heaven? Chiang loves tackling Biblically inspired themes alongside hard science fiction tales, and giving mythology the same sustained treatment of speculation.


The Dragons of Babel (2008) by Michael Swanwick

The tower has more of a ziggurat shape here as it dominates the mighty city Babylon in Faerie Minor. Its highest levels are covered in skyscrapers from where the Elven aristocrats rule the land. Its internal railway net is so old and cavernous that entire peoples have made it their home, migrating from abandoned station to station. A hidden world separated from the civilised upper layers.


Hollow (2021) by B. Catling

Of all the stories in this list, this one is mostly directly influenced by the paintings by Peter Bruegel. Catling supposes that the tower was abandoned over time, left to slowly collapse into itself. Now it can hardly be recognised as a tower, overgrown as it is, and most people think it is a mountain, but deep inside there are still cavernous spaces, passageways and libraries, the books of which are slowly being devoured by demons who try to create personalities based on the words they eat. 


The Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

Highly likely the most intriguing variation on the tower. Bancroft’s four-book series, starting with Senlin Ascends (2013), explores the tower from the ground level to the crown. As Thomas Senlin makes his way through the tower, we see all the levels as separate kingdoms or “ringdoms”. How they are linked together is a discovery best left for the readers, but look at this drawing by Bancroft himself. Now that is something new as a fantasy map.


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Review: The Dragons of Babel (2008) by Michael Swanwick

8/10

Earlier this year I read Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) and I was immensely impressed. The weird faerie-cyber-elf-punk-Dickens world with telepathic robot dragons blew my mind. This world combined the strangest opposites: fairy tale and cyberpunk, Harry Potter-like fantasy cuteness and the sudden violence and cruelty of old Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The explosion of inventive fantasy on every page was very satisfying, but what impressed me most of all was Swanwick’s powerful prose that made it a joy to read.

The Dragons of Babel (2008) is a loose companion novel, written 15 years later, and can be read as a standalone. A new main character, the young Will, has his life turned upside down when an iron dragon crashes in their little fairy village. The dragon is still alive but can’t move, and chooses Will to be his lieutenant. He has little choice. Swanwick solidly inverts the farm-boy-turned-hero trope. The malign influence of the dragon’s dark thoughts spreads into Will and the village. Will becomes nasty and shunned by all. I think Swanwick takes a page from an old classic: Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). The Dragons of Babel recreates the same kind of droll fairy-tale village, and very much like that novel it “shifts unpredictably from drollery to menace to a high poignancy that sticks in the mind” as other reviewers have said. It’s the kind of tale where you look up every chapter and think: “what crazy thing did I just read? That was a lot darker than I expected.”

Will’s story continues, follows a strange Bildungsroman journey full of uncomfortable choices, in a world of elves, centaurs and other creatures classic and new, against a backdrop of war and refugees. There is a darkness in Will, but it isn’t all his fault. It’s just a perverse world that he is born into. The same with Jane in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter: if you grow up as an orphan in a Dickensian factory, chances are that you’ll be doing drugs later on as a difficult teenager. Will gets a companion: a young girl named Esme, who is really about two centuries old but sold her future and memory for perpetual childhood and continuous good luck, which is leeched from the luck of those around her. She will be fine, and she will be bad for you, but it is hard dumping a little girl by the side of the road.

We need to talk about the structure of these novels. Will’s story is like a series of short stories and we jump from one storyline to another. Only at the end do they come together as a satisfying whole. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter too was a series of four novellas squeezed together. Swanwick is really a short story writer, but this approach to writing is a bit messy. Not every part is equally interesting and the story feels unfocused. Characters sometimes disappear for long stretches of time. 

The first chapters made for a compelling start and I was entranced from the first page, but… Swanwick’s main point, or what I think is his main point, is also what makes the story bewildering to read, and it is this: magic is awful. It fucks up people’s lives. Will tries to find his way in the world but this magic-infused reality jerks his life this way and that, and that is how the story comes across to the reader as well. This is an anti-fantasy where the farm boy can’t get ahead and magic is horrible. There is even a point where you think that it turns into a regular old fantasy with a big struggle and hero’s journey and all that, before the novel flips its table and starts something totally new again. Swanwick is signalling that this book is not that kind of story.

And you know what, when I thought momentarily that the story would turn into a regular old hero’s journey and big fight, I felt disappointment. So, luckily that didn’t happen. The subversions throughout this book feel jarring, but are ultimately more interesting. In the end, this was a very satisfying, stimulating read, although it pays if you find it in yourself to wallow a bit in the shock and perversity on display here. You don’t expect it in a book about elves and dwarves, but that’s kind of the point.

What I appreciate most about these Swanwick novels is that they exist at all. I want there to be space for novels like these. Much of fantasy is about long-running series of predictable epic fantasy or young adult fantasy, but these quirky standalones also stand apart. They reach for influences in disparate corners of speculative fiction and embody highly creative hybrids for adult readers who are very well read into the genre and know all the tropes. Swanwick operates from a very different starting position, a different headspace, that has nothing in common with your typical trilogy-writing epic fantasy novelist. And what he adds to the genre feels unique. The books are both a reaction against trends and an incorporation of some timeless fantasy elements in new settings. 

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Review: Gnomon (2017) by Nick Harkaway

9/10

gnomon

  • The projecting piece on a sundial that shows the time by the position of its shadow (look at the shark fin on the cover).

Inspector Neith of the Witness Programme is quite rattled when the suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in custody. This is an unusual case, prompting Neith to find out what happened. In this dystopian future, governance is done via AI and machine learning. Ruthless invasion of privacy and total observation (“Witness”) are used to calculate the safest and most controlled society for its citizens. But machine learning cannot explain Hunter’s death; it can only go so far into the sideways landscape of human irrationality, and inspector Neith has to use the results of a mind scanning operation to immerse herself in the neural recordings of the late Diana Hunter. What she finds in Diana’s mind are the memories of multiple persons, and in those memories a hidden code that will upend the world.

The first memories Neith sees are of Diana herself. She was one of those refusenik people. She lived in a house without screens, without a washing machine that can tell if you’re pregnant or using drugs, without sensors everywhere, but with piles of books on every surface (this is a book about stories). She narrates her thoughts to us while Inspector Neith is under. To do that, to upload someone else’s memories into temporary storage in your own brain, your own mind needs to be in order. No problem for Neith – she’s a true believer in the System, the surveillance state. She’s proper police. You can guess where this is going…

gnomon

  • A carpenter’s steel tool used to draw right angles.

In the back of the Inspector’s brain, the Hunter upload starts unfolding like origami, the personalities inside bubbling out. In a way like the book itself unfolding in the reader’s brain while reading. Fans of David Mitchell take note here. The structure of the novel is similar to Cloud Atlas (2004), with chapters dedicated to the stories of other characters and with intriguing connections between them, and the inspector storyline tying it all together. But Harkaway utilises this approach in a way that Mitchell never did. We get nested stories within stories and a cloudy layering of reality. Harkaway can hold his own compared to Mitchell when it comes to the variety of settings and characters. It is a glorious interconnected mosaic of a novel.

The future society that Harkaway sketches is not unequivocally dystopian. It does many things well. There are trade-offs between how well you’d like to see things organised and how much control or privacy you would like to give away to higher-ups, or to emotionless algorithms. What if there are better ways to get things done, or to reach democratic decisions? The novel is full of interesting ideas that make you question where you would stand on how this future Britain is run. I don’t fully believe that this society could ever work the way Harkaway presents it, but he clearly put a lot more thought into it than is put in your average dystopian novel. It is more like a departure point for an interesting conversation than a message. It’s in dialogue with other SF.

gnomon

  • In Greek, the one who knows.

Nick Harkaway (a pseudonym for Nick Cornwell, who is the son of famous spy-thriller writer John le Carré) has a smooth, elegant writing style. Easy to read, sharp in his choice of words, sometimes crass or funny, betraying a subtlety of thought and a broad interest in the world. There’s something interesting happening on every page (and this is a hefty book of 700 pages). There is so much going on in this novel, so many topics touched upon. If not about ubiquitous AI, then about Greek mythology, banking, the super-rich, Go, alchemy, Byzantine church politics, and that’s just the first chapters. It is a bit of a David Mitchell/Neal Stephenson hybrid, taking the best of both worlds, but Harkaway is also wordy, making the plot move a little slow. The little info-dives are there, but coupled with great character writing and leaps through time in a postcyberpunk, literary mode where the mysteries of the world have to be approached edgewise by seeing them play out in various settings.

The dystopian stuff is just the beginning. A quarter of the way in, in a tale about an Ethiopian painter, the story starts folding in on itself as a semiotic puzzle. I have no other way to describe it. Every time you think you have connected the dots, Harkaway basically says: “Ah, you’ve figured that out, now let’s go a step further.” Like I said, unfolding like origami. I felt utterly compelled to keep reading. We are now entering Philip K. Dick territory with mutually-exclusive interpretations of what is going on. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) also comes to mind. 

gnomon

  • That which, when added or subtracted to an entity, makes a new entity similar to the starting entity. 

On a more meta level, the book is about making stories, about narratives and counter-narratives of characters that fall into the roles of antagonists and protagonists, but these struggles are reflections of a struggle on an ever higher level. I’m rambling. It will make sense when you read it, somewhere in the second half of the book. Harkaway explores the idea that in the absence of information, gaps are automatically filled by stories that are handed to you, for as long as you don’t know any better. Very spy-esque. The characters in the dystopian storyline also inhabit literary archetypes like the crusader, the sage, the trickster, to an effect that is clearly deliberately enhanced, but set in a starkly realist future so that the story-logic seems to infect reality.

I can say that Harkaway is brilliantly exploring the boundaries of genre in a book that is like a cross-fertilisation project of other slipstreaming luminaries, but whether you will like this book depends totally on whether you like this kind of storytelling. At the end of every chapter I needed to put the book down and think about the entire story so far and see if I can fit that latest chapter into my theories of the whole. Harkaway is also a self-indulgent writer who likes info-diving, long character-voiced paragraphs and to drop you into new perspectives like throwing you into cold water. 

I’ve never read anything like this novel; gave me a sense of awe that I haven’t felt since Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) and Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. It has a brilliant concept at its heart. And yes, it is a bit long, and the Cloud-Atlas structure takes away the forward momentum at times and the focus on storytelling feels a bit like navel-gazing, but these are minor squabbles and also come with the package for the kind of book Harkaway wanted to write. If my emotional connection to the characters had been a little bit stronger, and if the story made just a little bit more sense at the end, then this would have been an all-time favourite. As it stands now, on the basis of his elegant prose, intriguing stories and the frisson of the metaphysical puzzle at its heart, I still think it is one of the best and most baffling science-fiction novels of the 21st century so far. 

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Review: Nifft the Lean (1982) by Michael Shea

5.5/10

Nifft the Lean is a bony, long-fingered thief and a swindler, and he is presumed dead. The book starts with a eulogy by his friend, praising his larcenous skills. What actually happened, as we learn in the novellas that follow, is that Nifft regularly takes trips to the underworld. 

Michael Shea was a writer who wore his influences on his sleeve, and two authors influenced him in particular: H.P. Lovecraft and Jack Vance. So much so, that he wrote an official sequel to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories in the 1970s. Vance had created the unpleasant swindler Cugel the Clever and had him star in the outrageously funny The Eyes of the Overworld (1966). Shea took notes and Vance gave Shea permission to publish his own Cugel novel: A Quest for Simbilis (1974). A decade later, Vance wrote his own sequel novel (Cugel’s Saga), in effect overruling Shea’s, but by then Shea was ready to stand on his own two feet and created his own unpleasant scoundrel, loosely modelled on Cugel the Clever. This became Nifft the Lean. It may sound a bit like a ripoff, but Nifft the Lean (1982) became a success, winning the World Fantasy Award. 

We follow Nifft’s misadventures through the underworld in four novellas. I am actually still worried that this will read like a Jack Vance ripoff, but we will see. On the other hand, once you’re promised Dying Earth stories, nothing else will do…

#1 Come Then, Mortal. We Will Seek Her Soul

Nifft narrates his tale of how he first ended up in the underworld. A witch rises from the dead and asks Nifft to bring her her former lover, who is still in the world of the living, and escort him all the way into the land of the dead. In return, he will get the golden key to a great wizard’s mansion. Ok, Michael Shea has very much his own style, nothing like Jack Vance. This is a sword-and-sorcery novella that is more in the spirit of Fritz Leiber and his Grey Mouser stories. Nifft does not have the mannered wit of Vance’s Cugel, but he is an astute observer. The writing is very descriptive, using a huge vocabulary, and feels a bit slow and elaborate.

The real treat is the underworld, the inferno, the place of the Raging Dead. Nifft’s journey is full of the macabre. Meeting a skeleton filling itself with flesh, wrestling a manlizard, dealing with giants with flesh-eating babies. The underworld is, in fact, the main character of the story. Nifft’s journey is not much more than a sight-seeing trip while the demons have unsettling effects on him and his fellows. Nifft himself isn’t all that exciting, actually. It’s because he doesn’t do anything. He’s riding a raft through the underworld and doesn’t show much agency in what happens to him. Nevertheless, it is the best story in the collection.

#2 The Pearls of the Vampire Queen

In which Nifft engages in bounty hunting ghouls for an elaborate plan to swindle the vampire queen Vulvula (really?). (As an aside: every woman in this book is beautiful and terrifying, all queens and goddesses, with every curve described. It’s a feature of old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery, but also repetitive and a bit strange.) Again, Nifft and his companion Barnar aren’t given much depth as characters. Nifft narrates his tale in a detailed, literate style that takes some concentration to get through. Strangely, there is no tension in this tale. Nifft experiences no setbacks in his dastardly plan. He is never in danger. Each step of the plan works out, hunky-dory, end of story. It is the exotic locations and strange creatures that stand out, just as in the first tale, but other than that, the fact that Nifft is a charlatan raises no excitement whatsoever.

#3 The Fishing of the Demon-Sea

This one started out with some improvements: Nifft and Barnar are coerced into an impossible journey. Similar to the first story, we get a journey into the underworld, but much more hazardous this time. But I quickly lost interest. There is no setting of mood or tone, and everything pointed towards the same shortcomings that the previous stories had.

Did not finish at 50%

Conclusion

A disappointment. The stories have almost no tension to them. The way Nifft tells his stories, usually after the fact, removes the danger and mystery. The locales are exotic and the monsters are occasionally interesting, but there’s things lacking in the narrative style that makes me question why I am reading these stories. They don’t make much impact, because tension and character are underdeveloped, emotional tone is flat and the stories are not much more than simple quest tales.

The prefaces to the stories also give hints that there is something missing in the way Shea approaches storytelling. Each story has an exceedingly dull preface full of meaningless geography. Only with the fiercest dedication could I work my way through that vomit of unnecessary worldbuilding. The stories have all the surface features of colourful sword-and-sorcery, but no depth of immersion. Shea skips over interesting scenes that would give flair and meaning to his stories. He has Nifft summarise important events and emotions, while choosing to focus on the action, which is very mechanical.

The first story I would still recommend, but for the rest, your mileage may vary.

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