Review: Matt Haig – The Humans (2013)

6.5/10

What is The Humans (2013) about? A short humorous novel about an alien who rushes to planet Earth because a professor is on the verge of cracking an important mathematical problem and the aliens don’t want that to happen. Our alien quickly inhabits the body of the professor to erase his discovery, but what the alien didn’t expect is that he now has to deal with living as a human, including the gross body of the professor, dealing with the professor’s family and all the baffling social customs.

Matt Haig is a popular British writer who’s output has had an interesting development over the years. In the first years of the 2000s he gained an audience with his adult and children’s books that had dark takes on family life. Then Haig turned to autobiographical self-help books about anxiety and depression, like Reasons to Stay Alive (2015) and Notes on a Nervous Planet (2018), gaining him a wider audience. At the same time, he turned towards science fiction, and his struggles with anxiety and depression informed the themes he chose to tackle there. His latest, The Midnight Library (2020), is about a depressed woman experiencing alternative takes on her life, much like Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016) without the thriller parts.

One can immediately see how Haig’s preoccupation with anxiety and depression paved the way for a story like The Humans. The real story of this novel is holding up a mirror to our human behaviour, while the science fictional premise of an alien embodying a professor is wildly inconsistent and plainly just a setup. It’s science fiction for people who don’t normally read science fiction. The alien is there to point out highly irrational things, like: human conversations are rarely about what they really want to talk about. Humans do things to make themselves happy that actually make them miserable, like watching TV or like making their skin look mildly less old.

It starts off in a slapstick way, nothing too deep or introspective but funny enough. The alien learns English from a Cosmopolitan magazine, causes a ruckus and via a rocky road sinks into the life of Professor Andrew Martin. As the alien learns more about humans, his questions go from basic stuff like “why do they conceal their bodies behind clothes?” to “why do they conceal contempt behind smiles?” The novel starts to speak to readers who’ve felt like impostors in their life, had problems trying to fit in, or were rejected by culture. “Everything in human life was a test. That’s why they all looked so stressed out.“ 

At first, Haig keeps a perfect balance between comedy and poignancy. A darkly comedic tone hints at depression, while quotable nuggets of wisdom keep things interesting. Now, I can totally understand if this book rubs you the wrong way. Haig’s super sentimental story could come across as pretentious and would make for a mediocre romcom starring Simon Pegg, like Hector and the Search For Happiness (2014) or Absolutely Anything (2015).

Stories like these are often predictable, yet I never felt a lack of originality in Haig’s writing. The story goes to much darker places than I expected. Unfortunately, it also gets buried under an avalanche of sentimental life lessons about love and feelings. As Haig’s true interests about mental health begin to float to the surface, the comedy drops away and the story becomes repetitive and dare I say boring. The character development is all in service to didactic goals for the readers.

I liked the first half but was slightly bored, bordering on annoyed, throughout the whole second half. The alien cannot be emotionally invested in and the mental health tidbits crowd out the comedy, leaving nothing but a self-help book on the level of a supermarket glossy. The alien listens to The Beach Boys and reads Emily Dickinson poetry and concludes that love is the key to the universe. The story couldn’t carry every bit of advice that Haig wanted to squeeze into it so he lets the alien conclude the story by giving a bullet point list of everything he’d learned.

I had higher hopes, but it is what I feared it would be.

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Review: Steven Erikson – Deadhouse Gates (2000)

Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen #2

Review: Gardens of the Moon (1999)


9/10

If you seek the crumbled bones
Of the T’lan Imass,
Gather into one hand
The sands of Raraku

Deadhouse Gates both isn’t and is a sequel to the first Malazan Book, Gardens of the Moon. Reading the Malazan books is a bit like reading a history of the Second World War, where the first book is about the eastern front, the second book is about Japan, the third book goes back to England and the fifth book is suddenly set in Africa. But in time they form a picture of the whole.

Deadhouse Gates takes us to a different continent with a largely different cast, but continues many of the first book’s themes. Seven Cities is on the verge of rebellion. That continent is a cesspool of treachery, backstabbing assassins and politicians, ancient history and will see a convergence of great powers while the Malazan Empire crumbles further into a rotten state of its own making. In comes Kalam, with his audacious plan. In come Ganoes Paran’s two sisters, Felisin and Adjunct Tavore, who will see firsthand that Seven Cities’ ancient past only lay sleeping. And in comes Coltaine, the new Fist sent by Empress Laseen. Is Coltaine sent, like Dujek and the Bridgeburners, to be abandoned in this dusty hell as a member of the old guard, or is Coltaine a weapon, honed and sent to subdue the unruly Cities?

The answers are never simple in Erikson’s books.

History is everywhere in this novel. Not only are two important characters historians, but Erikson peppers the story with desert ruins, cities built upon layers of cities, side stories that tell the dangers of ignoring history and even a character that cannot remember his own history. I’m talking about Icarium, of course, one of my favourites. He is a walking attempt at burying the past, but everything about Erikson’s novel hints at that being a doomed exercise, whether we are talking about individuals or empires. In any case, this all really adds to the atmosphere of the book.

There is a lot going on here. We start off with 4 or so plot strands, which fracture into even more. It gives the story a scattered feeling, with lots of viewpoint switching within chapters. On a first read, it’s all a bit much and many of the strands are slow burns that only start to deliver in the second half of the book. The great source of conflict, the simmering tension of the book is that of the Malazan Empire and its effort to impose its rule versus the more organically developed identity of Seven Cities and its history that the Malazans want to suppress. Again, Erikson doesn’t pick sides. Most plot strands are complications of these abstract themes. 

The emotional heart of the book belongs to those stuck between loyalties or stuck between opposing forces. 

Coltaine and his army. The Malazan Empire and the Whirlwind uprising are large, impersonal forces and most characters are dragged along in the wake of events, but Coltaine’s situation is right in the middle of these opposing forces; he is either the focus of hope or wrath. The entire continent rests on the shoulders of a wild, genius man. His story is all about making the right choices even if nobody appreciates it. What should be done when every side is bloodthirsty and everything is shades of grey? And Felisin, a character lost among betrayal and violence. What does she have left to fight for? 

Erikson still maintains a sort of scholarly distance from his characters, as if he is an historian himself. New folks like Duiker are interesting enough to follow, but take Fiddler, a major character in the series. We still only know him by this one nickname. Maybe Erikson gave a throwaway line in Gardens of the Moon as to his physical appearance but I must have forgotten it. We know little of Fiddler’s plans. Out of the blue he can blend in with local tribesmen and knows their customs, but we never hear much about his past as a veteran of the Seven Cities campaigns. Sometimes I fill in the details for myself to stay invested, but it is a lack that I am feeling here. 

Nonetheless, there are enough awe-inspiring feats of the imagination to make this a fascinating read. Whether we talk about the shapeshifters, demons, goddesses, prophecies or touching bromances such as Icarium and Mappo. The battle-scenes are among the best in the genre. There are moments of wonder and puzzlement that may one day receive an answer and cinematic moments that would look great on film. 

One of the greatest journeys of the book concerns the twists and turns around a prophesy where Erikson plays with our expectations. But on a deeper level, the possibilities around the fulfilment of this prophecy tie into alternative futures for the continent that may or may not come to pass, and ultimately rest on decisions made by single persons who are driven by compassion or hate. It is a major theme of Erikson’s series: how individual acts of either kindness, cowardice or hate can have major effects on history.

The book is stuffed so full that it feels like reading an entire trilogy in one go. It is among the best that epic fantasy has to offer, and a powerful exploration of themes of identity and history, morality and cycles of destruction and renewal.

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Firefly (2002-2003) TV series & Serenity (2005) review

Well, one thing’s for sure. There won’t be a season 2 review.

Firefly really is a western in space, complete with all the typical characters that you would usually see in a western. The gunslinger, the priest, the doctor, the prostitute… Not only is the soundtrack filled with violins and banjos, but some episodes have standoffs, duels, train robberies and even actual cows. We could call The Mandalorian a space western, but Firefly really takes it awfully literally. 

The in-universe explanation is that the Firefly frequents pioneer planets, at the edge of the civilized galaxy. But all of these planets are basically 18th century western America. They even dress the part.

The series is instantly recognisable as written by Joss Whedon. Not only the witty dialogue gives it away, but there’s his penchant for having a story centered around a woman with special powers, as he did in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alien Resurrection. Here we have River Tam, not an easy role at all to pull off but Summer Glau makes it work. All characters on board of the Firefly get decent screen time and their character traits are immediately clear and recognisable, while maintaining enough room for growth. It is deftly done.

Does it look dated? Yes, sorry. That’s not to say that the series isn’t an awful lot of fun, because the stories and the interplay between the characters are wonderful. But the digitally rendered spaceships and the intro theme song are terribly late-90s. The indoor sets are good though, spacious with vertical moment too, but the series didn’t earn its reputation through its visuals.

The episode that really won me over was one where Cap Reynolds finds a woman on the ship who claims to be his wife. At first, this causes all sorts of tension between the crew and I feared that the whole episode would annoy me with this forced drama, but then the story takes some u-turns and concludes it all magnificently so that the crew becomes an even tighter group with a much more interesting unspoken love in place. It’s great writing.

Then I started to notice that every episode showed that quality of writing. Some TV shows need a couple of seasons to get into their stride, but Firefly hits it out of the park right away. The characters appear fully formed, as does their camaraderie. The episodic stories are well written, with funny and original ideas. Never was an episode predictable and they always wrapped up in a way that just felt right.

Now I’m going to watch Serenity (2005) and cry over the void in my heart.


Serenity (2005) review

7.5/10

Two years after the unfortunate cancellation of Firefly, we are given a feature film as a sendoff for the characters and the universe that was so briefly established in the series. It is a fine film, even without having seen Firefly; but if you have seen the series, it would heighten your experience immeasurably.

The film also presents itself as an introduction to the crew and their backstory, like a summary of what Firefly’s first season was about and likely meant to garner a renewed interest in the show for a possible second season (which never came). But, seeing this movie it is not hard to understand that newcomers weren’t immediately taken with it. 

The crew is a lot snappier than in the series. For the film everything had to be more intense, so everyone’s yelling at each other like stressed-out raccoons. There are no standout characters to latch onto. Mal (Nathan Fillion), the purported main character, walks around with a perpetually angry and depressed face. This irritated me because the Serenity crew began to feel like family during the TV show. 

Serenity is ultimately a bit disappointing coming from the series. Too much running and screaming does not leave space for the kind of clever storytelling that the show had. It does not deepen the characters or their relationships. On the positive side, seeing the ship and crew supported by a bigger budget is very satisfying and the main antagonist is very good. It is a solid space opera adventure, gives a bit of closure and the show deserved that much at least.

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Mini-Reviews: 14 movies from 2020

Hey everyone,

Here are some more micro reviews for movies from 2020.

I did this before. Here is part 1 for 2020: Linky McLinkface.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019). The F&F franchise has inexplicably morphed into a near-future comedy superhero series, occasionally featuring cars. It’s a really funny movie, unironically, but it is 30 mins too long. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). A lively, busy film about riots in America, and strangely relevant this year. Great acting and dialogue, very engaging. Rylance and Langella were amazing here. At times humorous, at times infuriating. Only the ending is disappointing. I still recommend it.

Onward (2020). The other Pixar movie of 2020, about an insecure teenage elf. Terribly formulaic, ticking off all the boxes of sympathy generation and overloaded with clichéd prattle about adventure, quests and magic. But the ending was good.

The Vast of Night (2019). An ominous, atmospheric film about UFOs in the 1950s. Set at night in a small town. A bit of a homage to The Twilight Zone. A slow burn film full of lingering shots, long conversations that draw you in. An intriguing film that achieves a lot with a limited budget.

Wolfwalkers (2020). A beautifully coloured, stylised Irish animation. As they say, every frame a painting. A mystical depiction of nature that really spoke to me and great characterisation and voice acting. This might be the best animation of the year.

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020). The most producty product ever produced, but actually kind of charming. It has a good pace and is occasionally funny. Sonic babbles too much nonsense, though, like a Ryan Reynolds character. I wished he’d shut up.

Birds of Prey (2020). Convoluted, style-over-substance film about a psychotic woman. A bit like Deadpool but more kah-razy and less funny. Robbie has the charisma to make it somewhat watchable, but overall it is too messy.

Bad Boys for Life (2020). New directors playing catch-up with the Fast and Furious series, and aping Michael Bay’s style. A simplistic revenge story, excruciatingly bad acting, unfunny and loud.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). Intriguing, deeply layered film by Charlie Kaufman. I wrote a review of it here

Greenland (2020). Solid disaster movie about comets. The family’s struggle to survive was engaging, the effects were good and the social collapse was quite realistic. An unexpected pleasure.

Love and Monsters (2020). If you can stand the annoying narration of a neurotic mumbling, stumbling teenager, then you’ll be rewarded with some cool monster effects. The script is rather childish but has its moments.

Psycho Goreman (2020). A really weird comedy in which two snotty children gain control over a Thanos-like alien overlord. Very 80s. The girl character was annoying and the story plain disappointing, but it had great, exuberant use of puppets.

Promising Young Woman (2020). Story of a woman who takes revenge on pushy “nice guys”, but hatred has already consumed here inside. A clever movie, with a clever script and clever casting. Better and deeper than your average revenge movie.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020). A Werner Herzog documentary about meteorites. The best thing about the documentary is the passion of the scientists on screen who have studied meteorites for decades. Worth seeing for some fascinating corners of the planet. It’s easy to mock Herzog’s style, but he is a skilled narrator.

In the end we are all made of stars. Except Herzog. He’s a Bavarian.

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Review: Michael Swanwick – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)

9/10

Jane was taken as a young girl. A changeling. Now, going through puberty, she works in a hellish Dickensian factory alongside goblins, fays and trolls, run by corrupt elves, making black dragons of iron for the elves’ war effort. Her days are bleak and her future seems hopeless, until she comes across a discarded iron dragon at a junk yard. The dragon whispers to her secrets of high skies, freedom and dark hatred, and Jane agrees to fix him in exchange for an escape by air.

Michael Swanwick is one of those writers who, along with, say, John Crowley and M. John Harrison, pushes the boundaries of speculative fiction and quietly produces fiction a step removed from the main currents of genre, often leaving readers a bit flummoxed. And this book sure is a reaction again the entire history of fantasy.

The above description of the story sounds like a neat setup for a Young Adult adventure, cleverly using the fresh idea of a faerie cyberpunk setting (which is in itself unusual) for a tale of cutesy fantasy, personal growth and happy empowerment. But, to quote China Mieville, Swanwick “completely destroys the sentimental aspects of genre fiction”. Let’s step back into the real world for a moment. What happens often to kids with a horrible childhood? They develop psychological issues, maybe get an addiction, maybe get pregnant at the age of 16.

Nothing about this book is obvious. Nor is it escapism.

There are sudden and dramatic shifts in setting throughout the book, but even in the first chapters in the factory, hints are strewn about of things to come. A somewhat disturbing focus on Jane’s as yet unexplored sexuality and first menstruation, a fay having a fever dream about Pepsi and Lucky Strikes, the iron dragon infesting her mind with hallucinations, in effect corrupting her for its own goals. The dragon is some amalgamation of the shrewd dragons of the fantasy of yore combined with the inhuman AIs of science fiction. It feels like a natural marriage.

And don’t even think about popular tropes such as fate, or immediate redemption after a quick lesson learned in an easily grasped hero’s journey. Jane’s story is one of repeated bad decisions, some involving kleptomania, emotional manipulation, gratuitous drug use and tantric sex magic. Then again, this twisted faerie world deals her such a bad hand that she is merely trying to survive. It is like an anti-fantasy, closer to the drama-porn of mainstream literature. But anti-fantasy or not, Swanwick is still a giant of the imagination and conjures a constantly fascinating fantasy world.

Jane, not being a hero of a fairytale, is confronted with the price tags of trying to get ahead in the world. Is it worth it to lie and betray people versus slavery? It is ok to live a full life when a loved one chooses to pay the price for it? When will a lack of principles come around to bite you in the ass? It is a möbius loop of a coming-of-age story in which the same struggles appear in different settings.

Confronted with this unsanitized, visceral version of fantasy, then what have we been reading all this time before Swanwick’s book came along? What is fantasy? What is the use of fantasy imagery anyway? It can be used to capture childhood worlds, but is growing up then nothing more than replacing fantasy imagery with reality? What is the iron dragon? The dragon is an escape for Jane but not for the readers, and signifies violence, to herself and to others. Is it a self-destructive impulse, and do we all have a dragon calling for us?

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter reads at times as a precursor to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and the New Weird genre, but an earlier version of it, closer to the origins of fairytales. Not weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but a violent tearing away from a baseline and in dialogue with what it is struggling against. Closer to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium in intention but very different in tone and substance (if I may guess at writers’ intentions). 

It is a morbidly fascinating book. It doesn’t seem to have any presence in popular culture, but it did have an impact on the genre that continues to reverberate.


I will certainly be picking up more of Mr. Swanwick’s work. I already had a good experience with Stations of the Tide, and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter convinced me all the more that he is a writer to dig into.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) Review

9.0/10

A Charlie Kaufman film so you know it’s going to be out there. An old guy imagines himself as a young man with a girlfriend who then wants to break up with him. How sad is that? It takes the inner struggle of a singular person and externalises it into a relationship struggle in a way that can hold a thousand meanings. A melancholy film full of loneliness and awkwardness, made hypnotic through the rhythm of windscreen wipers. 

A confronting, dreamlike film. It is really uncomfortable in a very nuanced way. In the interaction between the two “lovers”, there’s always a slight misalignment in their talk and emotions. For me, that created a tension that drew me in. At other times, awkwardness is exaggerated, making it painfully recognizable from real life, hard like statements. A particular dinner scene is really fantastic and reminded me of Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) if you’re familiar with it.

All hidden fears in people are made visible here. The more you desire social masks of decency, the deeper the film hits. In the end, the discomfort is not the fault of the people acting strange in the story. They have every person’s quirks. It is in the disposition of the visitor of the story that other people’s quirks become oppressive. In the disposition of the girl, the guy, or us, the viewers.

The unending nightmarish world comes, I suppose, from the mentality of the characters, of the girl but eventually of the guy who imagines all of it, so the deepest cause of all this lack of life and wholesomeness bounces back and forth between the characters. It may be a projection of the guy, perhaps some kind of commitment fear tied to his own feelings of inadequacy. 

If you haven’t seen the film yet then I’m just rambling. But the emotional ebbs and flows in the behavior of the characters have a recognisable logic to them. From the perspective of the woman, most can be explained by the feeling of getting sucked into someone’s life, including the bones in the closet, while you don’t feel like committing to it. A claustrophobic feeling of seeing the rest of your life boxed in by those bones. Playing roles for the sake of other people’s issues. For the guy, it is the inadequacy underlying those issues and in extension the family he grew up in.

The film somehow combines the emotions of Synecdoche, New York (2008) with the visual energy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and is a good successor to them. Basically, people’s fears are here told via visual metaphors and if you can keep up with a constant stream of needing to interpret those visuals, then it is a really fascinating, tense film. Just keep noticing the emotions involved. Play the role of psychiatrist to decode the film.

When the man and woman are alone, their dialogue, the constant back and forth, should also not be taken literally, as a literal conversation. It’s like they constantly make an effort to revitalize something that keeps crashing every minute. In any case, whatever you see or hear in the film is a completely subjective experience caused by the character(s) themselves. Now I’m rambling again.

I just fear that people who see this won’t pick up all the interpretations. One example is when the couple go to get ice cream and this one waitress who helps them has rash all over her arms and in a scene before she was described as one of those students who will walk with a dark cloud over her head for the rest of her life. And when the guy hands over the cash, he suddenly has the same rash on his hand, but when the girl talks to him about it afterwards, he says he didn’t notice rash on anyone. Because he is the same kind of person. He cannot see it, but his girlfriend is not. She is the visitor in his life with an outside perspective. The scene goes by in a blink and the film is full of that material.

This is the first film in 2 years that I feel compelled to write an entire story about. It happened automatically. I set out to write three lines about it and this is what happened. I don’t understand how one makes a film like this. It’s brilliant. Many people hate it.

Don’t forget to enjoy the love in the final dance. Take a breath to remove the tension.

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Review: Philip K. Dick – Martian Time-Slip (1964)

Books about Mars need red covers, not blue

7.5/10

I bought this book because I like the title. Isn’t it mysterious? (And I’m a big fan of PKD) So, what is going on on Mars?

Isolated homesteaders are eking out a living on the dusty plains of the red planet. Emigration to Mars is slow, and the soil ill suited for crops and cattle. The cows are skinny, and there are always water shortages. Power is in the hands of the self-absorbed, coarse Arnie Kott, head of the Water Workers union. Kott meets a nonverbal autistic boy, Manfred Steiner, who lives accelerated through time and Kott wants to exploit him to get knowledge of the future. The more Kott tries, the more disorienting the story gets.

The writing is vibrant and energetic, with good character introductions that often have a dry, exaggerated tone to them. In Arnie Kott’s introduction, for example, we first meet him in his wasteful steam bath, soaping himself up and being surrounded by yes-men who nod their heads at his rambling speeches. Dick wants to bring his stories in imaginative and entertaining ways, and his books are never about realism anyway, so why be so serious? They’re about fragmenting, confusing realities, and often funny. 

There is a lot going on in this short novel in terms of plot lines, character perspectives, themes, and a lot more worldbuilding than Dick usually takes on. But this Mars is some kind of nonsense future, not meant to be a prediction but the 1960s transplanted; just an outlandish setting for human greed, narcissism, guilt, rationalisations and so on. No clear main character drives the story, which makes the first half a bit jumbled. 

A second storyline involves Jack, a schizophrenic repairman whose story intersects with Arnie Kott’s. Jack’s story shows us how the Martian community’s creepy AI education system tries to imprint a type of life that was normal on Earth but at odds with Mars, and everyone who cannot handle that is automatically labeled autistic and institutionalised. (Making autism a catch-all term for anything out of the ordinary, like Manfred Steiner’s slippage through time.) This ties into a common theme of Dick’s that sometimes it is an appropriate response to reality to go insane. Jack’s story also involves the native aliens of Mars (the Bleekmen) and their religion. It all sort of comes together eventually.

Time has not been kind to this novel. If you feel like going on a righteous moral crusade you can pick and choose between questionable use of mental illness for the plot, hamfisted commentary on racism and casual sexism thrown about by the characters. Partially this is just Dick inhabiting the heads of vile characters and not necessarily his own opinions, and the Martian culture has its own definition of what is autism or schizophrenia for the reality-questioning story. I don’t find this a particularly interesting discussion, though. It’s an old book. 

And it’s a bit of a slow burn. The plot is as scatterbrained as its inhabitants and needs patience, but there is an impressive part where Dick is scratching the internal timeline like a DJ and we feel the same disorientation as the schizophrenic Jack. Some great final chapters offer the payoffs that were sorely needed and make this into one of Dick’s best. Good, but messy. Approach with care.

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Which old SF TV show shall I watch? Babylon 5? Firefly? Farscape?

I’m watching the Expanse and greatly enjoying it. It’s probably the best SF show produced right now and one of the best – if not the best – SF show of all time. 

Inspired by a YouTube video about top SF shows of all time, I want to tackle some old but loved ones. 

I have already seen a lot of old SF shows, namely:

  • All the Star Trek series
  • Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis
  • The X Files
  • Space Above and Beyond
  • Earth Final Conflict
  • V

So I am thinking of tackling some golden oldies that seem to be very popular but are still unknown to me. My shortlist is:

  • Firefly
  • Babylon 5
  • Farscape

What’re your opinions? Shall I do season reviews of them?

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Review: Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin (2019)

6.5/10

Slight spoilers for Children of Time

How could a book about terraforming, uplifted species, evolution, alien communication and large timescales be so hard to get through?

Children of Ruin is the sequel to the successful science fiction novel Children of Time (2015). And in time-honoured fashion, the sequel tries to recapture the same magic that made the first book work, but more intensely. Children of Time was a bit of a surprise hit. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award but no Hugo nor Nebula, gaining attention through word-of-mouth. Tchaikovsky, I believe, had no plans to write a whole series at that time. A third book also has not been announced, so take the whole thing as an impromptu series, but do read them in order.

The first third is pretty similar to Children of Time and a continuation of it. Long ago, Earth sent out terraformers to distant solar systems, but human society waned and an Earthly species got the chance to grow into an intelligent civilisation on another world. Many thousands of years later, the crew that set out at the end of Children of Time makes contact with this new world.

The humans cooperating with spiders is still very cute to me. Spider technology and communication are very very different, and there’s something so optimistic about the shared human/spider crew. I love Tchaikovsky’s depiction of it. On the other hand, this series has an extremely cynical view on humans, which Tchaikovsky needles his readers with to the point of becoming tiresome. Yes, yes, humans bad. There’s a lecturing undertone to the series that irritates me.

Tchaikovsky is very good in building alien civilisations, especially with alien mentalities and how it influences their communication. Those are the highlights of the book. The first-contact scenes are fantastic. But the story, while intellectually engaging, also left me bored. The human characters are very one-dimensional (the first book also suffered from that problem) and his writing is too wordy and descriptive. Characters are hardly allowed to interact with one another, so we don’t really get a good feeling for them, while the story is told in an endless, dispassionate word vomit.

The middle third of the book injects some horror elements to spice things up, but Tchaikovsky fills page after page with redundant descriptions of his characters’ emotions without ever breathing life into them. And then the final third sort of lurches towards a conclusion that takes far too many digressions to get to.

Besides some scientific concepts that we just need to accept to make these books work, it is very much a hard-sf kind of novel, including the typical tendency to focus so much on the ideas that the pacing and characters are just off. The ideas are great and I have never seen such imaginative histories of spider or octopus civilisations, and this series really impressed on me what a challenge and what a boon it would be to share the universe with other intelligent species. The series really enriched my imagination. But I couldn’t immerse myself in the story; I felt totally disconnected and the novel is too long to just push through without that immersion.

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Review: Blake Crouch – Dark Matter (2016)

8/10

I had a great time with this novel! It is short, fast, and very cinematic, like an edge-of-your-seat thriller. As the story starts, we don’t know much yet about the main character, Jason, but when he’s unexpectedly kidnapped and pushed into a frantic story of running and figuring things out, I was gripped right away. Will he find his way back to his family? What is going on?

It is actually not that complicated to figure out what is going on, especially if you’re used to thrillers with science fictional elements. I basically guessed a lot of it after the first chapter and then had to wait for Jason to catch up. The following is already explained in the marketing blurbs: Jason leads a humble life with a family, while he could have been a high profile scientist. His kidnapper, before injecting him with something, asks if he’s happy in his life. Then Jason wakes up in an alternate reality where he is in fact a celebrated genius who just returned from some experimental dimension hopping. 

It’s not all running and screaming; not just about Jason but also about his family. Jason’s choices impact their lives and we see different ways of what could have been. This of course leads to familiar themes like success versus family and the grass is greener on the other side and so on. It’s not deep or original, but it is well done. Interesting moral questions come up once you see the lives of loved ones change depending on your choices.

The thing is, it’s easy to criticise the book for its writing, but it is very effective if you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller. Crouch’s writing style is very simple and plain, like it was written with a screenplay in mind. Short sentences, one line paragraphs, simple characters, bite-sized information, cliffhangers spaced throughout. It’s like Crouch got the advice not to use paragraphs, because that is too complicated for people. Also, don’t expect the science to be worked out. For example, I have no idea why it is called “dark matter”, because it has nothing to do with that. I guess it just sounds cool.

The story cranks up a notch at the halfway point, keeping my interest all the way through. Although, Jason isn’t the smartest. I realise the whole situation messes him up emotionally, but I was often annoyed by his actions. I think that is because Crouch simplified his writing so much that every thematic lesson is made obvious and every emotional journey is spelled out for you.

Despite my grumbling, I really admire how Crouch kept the story fresh and exciting all the way through. It really is quite a ride.

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