Review: Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton

6/10

Michael Crichton. Never fully adopted into the science-fiction family, yet immensely popular whist straddling the two worlds of sci-fi and the mainstream thriller. He’s basically the father of the techno-thriller (which is SF that involves the President). Producing a whole collection of airport novels that were almost invariably opted for Hollywood adaptation before the paper even hit the shelves. These are the books your dad read (alternated with the latest Stephen King). 

Sphere is Crichton’s version of a first-contact story, somewhere along the lines of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) with regard to the inexplicable alien intelligence, but waffle-ironed into the shape of a modern-day archeological sci-fi thriller. Norman Johnson, psychologist, is flown to a remote location in the Pacific Ocean to team up with a small group of other scientists, under the leadership of the US Navy. The reason for all the commotion is the discovery of a crashed spaceship on the bottom of the ocean, possibly hundreds of years old. 

So, a psychologist, zoologist, mathematician and astrophysicist enter the spaceship and find strange things. They aren’t very professional about it – pushing buttons on a whim and taking stupid risks, but this is by design by Crichton. They are prima donnas. The characters are really flat and basic, though. Anyway, as the group starts arguing about things they find on board, the story turns into a psychological thriller about anxieties, group dynamics and caving under pressure. A bit similar to what Jeff Vandermeer would do later with Annihilation (2019). In Sphere, a case is made for “you can’t predict who is going to go crazy”, for which reason Crichton makes every member an unreasonable asshole.

Crichton’s writing is both clever and clumsy. He makes excellent use of tension to write a nice gripping page-turner, and weaves the exposition into the dialogue. But much of his science facts are totally irrelevant to the story. Characters are mouthpieces for tidbits of Wikipedia facts (if Wikipedia existed in the day). A submarine pilot is an excuse for Crichton to say something about the underwater plain and mountain ridges. A biologist is an excuse for Crichton to say something about octopus intelligence. An astrophysicist is an excuse for Crichton to say something about the magnetic field of Mercury. Most of it is irrelevant and sort of scattered willy-nilly through the book. 

Crichton might have influenced writers like Dan Brown and Neal Stephenson, who use the same little lecture style exposition. But where Stephenson can bring something in an interesting, witty way and can make me laugh out loud in public, Crichton’s prose is terribly bland. With Stephenson it feels like a feature, with Crichton it feels like a first draft; like bumps in the road.

I flew through this book, but it was still a letdown. Characters were flat, dialogues were cranky, writing was messy, jokes didn’t land, exposition was overdone and misplaced. The only thing that really worked was the mystery and suspense. What sets Crichton apart from most other sci-fi writers is his focus on fear and anxiety to drive the story forward. That’s the thriller aspect, and not enough sci-fi writers utilise it. But even the thriller part wasn’t all that great. It felt forced and followed the same structure again and again (almost every chapter ending with Norman falling unconscious, for example). This one is really a beach read, a hamburger with science sauce over it. 

If the premise of an underwater SF thriller sounds good, then I would like to recommend Peter Watts’ Starfish (1999). That is also a psychological sci-fi thriller set on the bottom of the ocean, but with an even more oppressive atmosphere and with far better writing.

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Review: The Trouble With Peace (2020) by Joe Abercrombie

9/10

Look, there are some things that I could repeat for every Abercrombie book: one, he is a master of character. His characters are wholly original, come to life completely and have their own distinct voices, and two, his writing is both grim and hilarious. Three and four: his action scenes are immersive and gritty and his politics are great. Review over!

On a more serious note, Abercrombie has crafted another fine novel, perhaps his best one yet. This is pure craftsmanship on display. He has perfected his style. The narrative structure feels a bit like watching a really well-written TV show with a good, steady pace of story progression. Every short chapter is a perfectly sculpted scene with the right voice and the right emotional buildups and payoffs. On a sentence-by-sentence level it is a joy to read, full of wittiness. It is a middle book and as such doesn’t have to introduce its main characters like in A Little Hatred (2019). A book like this should use its space to lift the conflicts and the characters to a higher level and that is exactly where it succeeds. This is the book where the new characters step out of the shadows of the old guard and take charge of their lives.

What makes Abercrombie’s stories so compelling is the inner struggles of his characters. They aren’t the smartest nor the noblest nor the strongest, but you can’t help but root for them. Leo is a dumb meathead – a vain, impulsive jock, but you don’t want him to make bad decisions. Savine is an arrogant upper class bitch, but you don’t want to see her struggle with trauma and drug addiction. They all have their stories and Abercrombie really puts them through the wringer. Reversals of fortune, dashed dreams, sudden glory, shocking revelations, lots of highly dramatic stuff.

A third into the book, you just know that there is an absolute trainwreck going to happen further in, and there will be beloved characters on every side and you want to rip your couch in half over the choices some of them make, but you’re in too deep to stop reading now. And you’ll be horrified every step of the way. Some characters step up to the challenges and their progression is wonderful to see. Others descend or follow questionable, dangerous paths. 

These new Age of Madness books are a lot more complex than the previous First Law entries. Before, stories followed journeys or moved from battle to battle. We would get a whole-book revenge story (Best Served Cold) or a military story (The Heroes), or a Tolkien-subversion in the earlier books. There was always something more rumbling in the background, but A Little Hatred and The Trouble With Peace do a lot more. We see a host of characters all caught up in political manoeuvres and economic and romantic struggles, set against a backdrop of international conflict (which may feature evil wizards), a secession movement and a class revolution. Thematically, Abercrombie doesn’t have new deep insights to share, but it is a lot, and plotted masterfully within a reasonable amount of pages (500 give or take) for epic fantasy. 

If I have to think of any detracting points, then there are two side characters (Vick and Broad) who didn’t do much for me and made the POV count burst at the seams. Other than that, this is pretty much a perfectly told story. Immersive, grim, multi-perspective epic fantasy that completely comes to life through its lifelike characters.

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Review: The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick

7/10

If you are doubting whether to read this novel, then you’ve probably already come across multiple descriptions of its premise. It usually goes like this: “In this alternate history book, the Allies have lost the war. America is divided up between Japanese and the Nazi zones of occupation.” Yes, and that is true. An interesting mirror to Europe divided between the US and USSR. But this is also a Philip K. Dick book, and Philip K. Dick books are never that straightforward.

First of all, Dick does a standout job with his alternate history America. His main characters live in Japanese controlled California, under a white puppet state somewhat like East Germany, and Japanese culture has come to suffuse society. The “native” American characters talk with Japanese accents (and now things like American comic books are considered native culture) and an Asian sense of social place is part of life. I was reminded of San Fransokyo in the film Big Hero 6. You don’t want to know what the Nazis have done with the rest of the world but it is suitably grisly.

Lots of writers can cook up a straight alternate history novel, but Dick adds his own mindset. The cultural alienation of the Japanese occupation is a topic ideally suited to his interests, as is the psychosis of the Nazi mind. Divided between the two, America has lost its identity and is in one of those delicious states of alienation that Dick jumps on like a hungry caterpillar. Against this background, Dick’s characters have their quirks as well. They all have a fascination with the I Ching for divining their future. There are twelve I Ching readings in the book that push the story in various directions, and in fact Dick used the I Ching as a plotting device. Of course, writing an alternate history is dabbling in games of chance already, so the I Ching angle makes sense thematically.

What ultimately convinced me to try this novel is a plot line about a writer (the titular man in the castle) who, like Dick himself, writes an alternate history book in which the Allies DID win the war, but it is again different from our reality, so now we have yet another variation on the 20th century, a double inversion of history. There we have the multiplicity of realities that Dick is famous for. So, instead of lazily building your novel on a single brainstorm and calling it quits, Dick plays around with multiple variations of alternate history. Like throwing sticks in an I Ching reading. That lifts the novel up on my personal ladder to a job well done as a speculative exercise. 

Is the I Ching the magical device that allowed Dick to sculpt the perfect novel? That is for you to decide. But the answer is no. The story doesn’t seem to have a clear goal. It just follows a bunch of characters through some moments of their lives while they are confronted with the peculiarities of the political situation. There’s a Japanese business man doing things and there’s a Jewish man trying to start a jewellery store. Some excitement was lacking for me. What is very good is how Dick deals with the complex emotions of being part of a subjugated people. The characters clearly struggle with trying to belong to the Japanese culture and failing, and feeling inadequate and resentful and proud of their own background. Throw in also the Nazi ideology and simply living becomes an emotionally confusing mess.

On a deeper level the novel is about chance, fate and serendipity, and trying to understand that deeper reality behind the reality you are observing. Dick’s choice to write an alternate history novel seems secondary; flowing from that deeper topic of interest. The stuff about the Japanese and Nazis is not the deepest point of the novel, and if you were to go into the book with that expectation, the whole I Ching angle will be really odd.

I respect its legacy, which is based purely on the salient alternate history stuff. I admire the speculative roads the novel goes down, but the stories of the characters left me cold. The world is fascinating, but I wished the story was more interesting.

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Review: Hollow (2021) by B. Catling. Bruegel-Inspired Fantasy

8.5/10

Brian Catling burst onto the fantasy stage with a somersault and a reeking cyclops suit. He gave us the Vorrh trilogy (which I personally rate very highly): a gross, creepy, unnerving spectacle of a series, and Catling’s writing was very good – if in danger of overdoing it. Hollow (2021) is the start of something new. Catling, coming from the world of painting and performance art, took for Hollow his inspiration from painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder to write a macabre, Biblically inspired dark fantasy that walks a line between life and afterlife. 

The mercenary Barry Follett is hired by a Coptic priest to transport a highly valued Oracle to the Monastery of the Eastern Gate, which recently lost theirs. Follett collects the vilest murderers and sinners for his band, as per the revolting feeding requirements of the desiccated, wrapped corpse that is the Oracle. Along the way, it speaks sometimes, guiding their journey. Meanwhile, brother Dominic at the Monastery of the Eastern Gate is receiving visions. The Monastery, sitting at the foot of the mountain Das Kagel (which is the collapsed remains of the Tower of Babel), works like a cork to prevent the world of the dead from spilling over into the countryside. With the death of their Oracle, disaster is imminent. Follett and his band have to traverse a landscape of nightmarish creatures to deliver the replacement. 

Set in some 16th century version of the Lowlands, some of the chapters seem lifted straight out of a Bruegel painting. A third storyline follows Meg Verstraeten, a peasant living in the shadow of the collapsed mountain of Babel. The Spanish Inquisition is terrorising the countryside and Meg suddenly stands at the helm of an uprising, under the nickname of Dull Gret (if you are Dutch or Flemish you might recognise this name as Dulle Griet, also known as Mad Meg in England. There’s also a stone-throwing giant, which I believe is a legend from Antwerp. I love seeing some Low Country references in fantasy. One chapter is named Ol’ Klootzak’s Plot and I laughed out loud). While all this is going on, the world of the dead starts spilling over from the Monastery of the Eastern Gate, infesting the landscape with demonic creatures, so-called Woebegots and Filthlings. 

Dulle Griet (1563) by Bruegel the Elder. Notice the little Woebegots and Filthlings all over the place.

Catling is interested mostly in communicating an aesthetic, a certain brand of the fantastic. One that appeals to me greatly. There is a danger, however, in writing fiction inspired by other art, and that is letting the references dictate the story. This went wrong before with China Mieville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) which was not much more than a novella of name-dropping surrealist artworks against a thin and sluggish backstory. Catling does not totally avoid this trap. When the story is written around the references to real paintings, then the logic of the plot to tie it all together becomes a bit tortuous. Brother Dominic’s story includes a search for the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, but the why and the wherefore have more to do with Catling wanting to refer to those works than with the story he is telling.

Catling’s weakness is plotting. The story does not accomplish everything that it promises at the outset and ends in a quick resolution that leaves many questions unanswered. His Vorrh trilogy had the same problem. As a writer, he loves setting up ideas and mysteries, focusing heavily on the aesthetics (which are great, no doubt), but just like a modern art piece, does not give a plot-heavy narrative with a clear answer. The story ultimately left me a bit unsatisfied. It depends on what you’re looking for in a novel. 

It is easily forgiven, because the book is full of wonder. Each little chapter has some strange creature or stunning magical event – a real parade of the amazing and the grotesque. Each wonder has the miraculous and the terrifying in it. And Catling is doing what perhaps no other fantasy writer is doing: mining art history for fantasy stories – and in this book in particular turning the Low Countries into a mystical landscape connected to 17th century paintings and legends. If you’re tired of the usual fantasy and are looking for something new, something inspired and strange, try this.

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Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986), by Brian W. Aldiss and David Wingrove

Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree is a mammoth narrative history of the genre of science fiction, written together with author David Wingrove. It is in fact an updated version of Billion Year Spree, by Aldiss alone. Aldiss is, of course, a science fiction author himself and a successful one, so he is writing about his own backyard. He provides a very comprehensive overview of SF as literature up to the date this book was published, 1986. Of course, decades have gone by since then and the genre has evolved in many interesting ways, but that does not mean that Aldiss’ history is a bad one. If you have any interest in learning about the origin and development of the genre up to the 1980s, this book is very insightful.

Although I don’t particularly like Aldiss’s writing style. He sounds defensive and pompous. This doesn’t read like an academic work but like an opinion piece. There is a lot of name-throwing of 19th century writers that makes me think that Aldiss is trying to sell something to literature majors instead of writing something interesting to the casual SF reader. But say one thing about him, say that he did his research.

Aldiss focuses on key figures in the history of SF, like Shelley, Verne, Wells, Burroughs and gives short biographies to highlight the social context in which they wrote their stories. An image forms of SF always reacting to or against the prevailing ideas of the time. The evolution of the genre becomes clear, changing in step with social changes and philosophies, and with the developing printing industry of course.

On the Origin of Species: Frankenstein, Jules Verne and others

Aldiss places the origin of science fiction as we know it today in the 19th century, as an outgrowth of the gothic romance. In the era of the Industrial Revolution, when steam trains and clocks became forces to reckon with and an idea of progress and cumulative change began to take hold, the gothic romance novel appeared on the scene to make sense of it all as a kind of middle class literature. At first, the gothic romance looked into the past with nostalgia, but the priests and monsters that populated the stories would later be filled in by scientists and aliens. Technological progress and the theory of evolution made people question the place of humanity in the cosmos and SF filled that alienation in a poetic way at a time when the sciences and the arts were still closely linked.

This idea, that SF originated in the 19th century and that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be the first real SF novel, is now often repeated but, according to Aldiss, he was the one who first proposed it in an earlier version of this book, Billion Year Spree, written 2 decades earlier. At the time, the idea was ridiculed. So, he spends a lot of pages building this thesis of his, and to be fair, Frankenstein has been swarmed upon by literary critics like flies to honey ever since, so Aldiss’ “discovery” had merit.

The amount of science-fiction-like stories published in previous centuries is far greater than I suspected. Aldiss mentions that in the 18th century alone, more than two hundred stories were published about journeys to the moon! All these stories, together with numerous satires, utopias and wondrous travels like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels could be seen as science fiction, but Aldiss makes the point that these stories are all time-locked. They show no awareness of the idea of progress. That came with Frankenstein

Early 20th Century crap

The 1910s and 1920s were just full of crap, though. Horrible crap. On the one hand you had H.G. Wells who began to write boring didactic tomes about world governments, and on the other hand you had adolescent crap about lost primitives and exotic women on Mars by writers like H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Aldiss loves H.G. Wells in this book but even he doesn’t have much good to say about these decades.

Aldiss has even fewer good words for the branch of American SF that originated in magazines. “Low-brow stories” that have lead to an “SF-ghetto from which readers and writers still try to escape”. “Neither dreams nor culture can warm” the stories that appeared in Hugo Gernsbacks magazines. Hugo: one of the worst disasters ever to hit the science fiction field”. But these were also the years of Capek, Kafka and Huxley’s Brave New World as an antidote to Wells’ utopias. And of Olaf Stapledon, for whom Aldiss genuflects in awe and terror. 

E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith was perhaps the greatest of this American magazine ghetto, Aldiss says, but if that is so, then the rest must have been truly horrible. I thought Smith was nearly unreadable. Only when the magazines of John W. Campbell appeared and writers like Asimov and Heinlein popped up in the 1940s, did stories appear that are enjoyable to this day. What is interesting is that the magazines fostered a kind of milieu, a community of writers and fans who influenced each other and that shaped the genre ever since.

After WWII, hippies and drugs

The bubble of the SF ghetto popped after the Atomic Bomb was dropped and Neal Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Reality had done the impossible and that burst the power-fantasies of SF into mainstream thought, as if reality had become an extension of SF. Right now, the COVID pandemic feels the same to me, an extension of SF into reality. You can’t write an SF pandemic story anymore without the COVID years in the back of your head. 

Back in the fifties and sixties, SF was pretty much doing what it is still doing to this day. Makes me wonder how much SF is capable of changing, if at all. Themes like alienation, surviving the pressures of society, dehumanisation in the face of the stars… People still write books about robots or aliens. Maybe these are basic fears – alienation and dehumanisation – that will always remain relevant. Another view on this is that no theme ever becomes extinct in literature. Themes are just added on as society grows into the future, but we can still understand where we came from.

There were fewer than a dozen full-time SF writers when the 1960s began. But at the end of that decade it was already impossible to assimilate all that was published and all SF that was already written. There is some tension between the urge to remember and to become familiar with earlier work, and the onslaught of new publications that obliterates the past by sheer weight of numbers. It is interesting that in every era, the same question pops up: is the SF of today better or worse than of the good old days? Is it deteriorating? Even in those 20th century times, there was diversification and splintering. Aldiss was ultimately positive about this, and I think we can be too when looking at the situation today.

The 1970s transformed SF radically too. Female writers were entering the field more and more, which also made the male writers realise that they don’t cater to a strictly male audience (some dinosaurs like Asimov never got the memo). Besides feminist themes, add the New Wave experiments and greater critical attention, and the genre became a versatile, rich field. Interesting also that the 1970s kicked out the short story as the dominant form for the novel, and the 1980s moved from the novel to the trilogy.

Some criticism of Aldiss as a pompous idiot

Aldiss is very polite to his fellow writers when he doesn’t like something (except perhaps to Hugo Gernback). But I do have some criticism. He has a chapter on SF movies and computer games that he could have omitted. He makes blunt declarations without showing that he knows anything at all about those entertainment forms, and clearly just doesn’t appreciate the differences between books and movies. Get your snobby fingers off my movies!

It is strange how Aldiss praises some books above others without giving any good reasons for it, like (I’m paraphrasing): “Delany’s Nova is by far his best work, head and shoulders above Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and almost reaching the level of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Or: “Anna Kavan goes as far beyond Ballard as Ballard is beyond Wyndham.” What does any of this mean? How are you comparing these books and authors? He assumes things are self-evident, but he isn’t writing as an analyst, but as someone in love with his own words.

Sometimes I have no idea what he’s on about. Look at this: 

Le Guin suffered a different fate. She was temporarily canonized out of existence. She was adopted as the ne plus ultra of the new and proliferating critical community in SF. She alone washed whiter than white. She was, for a time, buried alive beneath a vast and ever-growing mound of criticism; laid out in the fine gold vestments with amphorae of food and drink to nourish her on the journey to Godhead. 

The book is full of this kind of rambling, where I have no idea what he’s actually trying to say. What is this babble.

Final Remarks

I like how he craps all over Asimov and Heinlein for degenerating in their later output, while praising Herbert, Clarke and Pohl for developing and getting with the times. He’s mostly fair. The predictions about writers from the 80s are sometimes off, understandably. He praises Gibson, Bear, Wolfe and Scott Card, completely dismisses Kim Stanley Robinson, and talks at length about Paul O. Williams’ Pelbar Cycle, which nobody talks about, ever.

My TBR list has grown alarmingly. Please help.

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Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis

8.5/10

Thomas Jerome Newton is an alien. He just arrived on Earth, all alone, on a desperate mission to save the last of his dying people. For that, he needs to amass a fortune on Earth to build a spaceship to bring the others over to Earth. To get the money, he sells patents for his alien technology. All he really knows about Earth is what he has seen on television broadcasts.

I can’t help but feel sorry for Newton. He is totally alone, totally alienated from society and on a desperate quest that nobody shares with him. He’s in pain because of the higher gravity, having problems with walking, and with the heat and bright light. He’s full of anxiety over his plans, over the strange planet Earth and over his communication with humans that is just a bit off all the time.

It is interesting to see what Tevis decides to tell and not to tell. He skips over intricate details of Newton’s plans, he skips over long periods of time, only to come back to Newton in his solitary moments where Newton reflects on his separation from his home planet. Between hours of talking and planning, he looks up at the stars, at unfamiliar constellations, and wonders where his planet is and if he ever meets his fellow people again. Things don’t go well for Newton. He gets depressed, discovers the soothing voice of alcohol, and people are on his tail, chasing the origins of all this new technology suddenly entering the market. Things go from bad to worse.

The narrative “makes a pleasure of melancholy”, to use the words of a professor character who likes to get drunk in the morning. There is some kind of psychological sickness that worms its way through the book. We get to see Newton from the eyes of a handful of supporting characters, and all of them drink, copiously. 

Speaking of alcohol, now is the time to bring up the writer, Walter Tevis. As a child, Tevis suffered illness that left him weak, fragile and apart from other kids. After treatment, he moved from San Francisco back to his family in rural Kentucky, and we can see that journey echoed in Newton’s arrival on Earth in the countryside, fragile and alone. Later in life, Tevis became an alcoholic. He became, according to his son, the anti-hero of his own novels. He is the man who fell to Earth. The story of Newton the alien is clearly a thinly veiled psychological study of alienation, depression and alcoholism, drawn from Tevis’ own experiences. Tevis was a bit like Philip K. Dick in that regard, but where Dick focused on the confusion of paranoia and schizophrenia, Tevis drowned in melancholy. 

It’s beautifully written. After the first chapter, I knew this was going to be a good read based on the author’s voice alone. He has a lyrical style, kept under strict control. It is painful too. Newton suffers so much – his loneliness a quiet, insistent aching. Tevis could have abandoned the sci-fi elements completely – for the themes are very literary – but doesn’t. The sci-fi framework works very well for themes of alienation and Tevis takes the genre seriously. He abides by its logic and extrapolations (as opposed to, say, Matt Haig’s The Humans, which is also about an alien stranded on Earth but is a self-help book in disguise with little actual interest in its own SF frame).

This book made me super uncomfortable. I don’t particularly enjoy reading about people abusing themselves with bad coping mechanisms. But I admire the book for being so powerful and, ultimately, moving. Newton is certainly a unique depiction of an alien in SF literature. It’s only a short read, not very expansive, but highly recommended. 

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Review: Steven Erikson – House of Chains (2002)

8/10

Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen #4

Of all the Malazan books so far, House of Chains feels the most like a middle book – wrapping up some storylines, introducing a bunch of stuff for the future, and generally having a bit of a clunky structure. In essence, the book follows upon Deadhouse Gates (2000) to continue the Seven Cities storyline with Felisin, Tavore and the Whirlwind. The first 260 pages, however, are like a short novel-sized detour. That detour gained a legendary/controversial status within the Malazan fandom, as it introduces one of the main characters of the series, Karsa Orlong. What’s different is that Erikson wanted to prove to his critics that he could focus his storytelling on a single character for more than a handful of pages, so the first quarter of House of Chains is Karsa’s story. It just so happens to be that Karsa Orlong is Conan the Barbarian on steroids; a giant barbarian murdering and raping his way towards the Malazan Empire. 

There is more to it than that, of course. Erikson is never superficial. House of Chains refers to something in the magical world-building in the series, but it also has a clear metaphorical meaning in that many of the main characters are either trapped in the chains of their culture or familial and social expectations, or are on a journey to break free of those chains. Karsa’s journey is the journey of a barbarian coming in contact with the outside world for the first time, completely upending his world-view. Felisin and Tavore are both trapped by their background and social roles, with dramatic consequences, and the newly-introduced Trull Sengar is ostracised by his own family for speaking the truth.

And Erikson is still world-class when it comes to creating a mystical world full of Gods and civilisations. Karsa’s journey is very immersive and his culture feels authentic, informed by Erikson’s background in anthropology. It has some wonderful and mysterious scenes, for instance when Karsa comes across a creature lying underneath a boulder for thousands of years. His arc gets more and more interesting as he occupies a special role in the unfolding story. His irreverent bloodlust against all the power-hungry bastards of the world is something to cheer on. He’s a free spirit; a nine-feet-tall pain in the ass for every god on the continent. Witness!

I like him.

The rest of the book is juggling a lot of plot threads, none of them particularly interesting at first. It is mostly setup for later events. The great Whirlwind rebellion that was promised to us in Deadhouse Gates has us instead hanging around in war camps a lot, waiting… learning the names of mages… Instead of a stirring tale of rebellion we get a ponderous tale of infighting, and this was disappointing to me at first. The ending is tragic but also disappointing after the whole buildup of this conflict. In a way the story is a subversion of the stirring cliche of the rebels against the empire. The story is smaller, dealing with personal transformations and tragedies. Therein also lies its power.

Some characters get new starts and here too I had problems. Fiddler rejoins the army for reasons unknown. I know that Erikson deliberately stays away from explaining what is going on in his characters’ heads and wants to let their actions speak for themselves, but it hinders my investment. Adjunct Tavore too turns out to be a walking question mark. None of the characters can figure her out, and neither can I. She is, after all, the Adjunct, the executive will of the Empress, a role that eclipses her own former personality. Erikson said in interviews that he had great fun writing Tavore because he wanted to keep her a wooden plank book after book, never showing her true colours. I’m not sure why, though. I don’t understand why Erikson wanted to do this. Why this aim? Tavore is yet another character that is difficult for me to feel invested in. There are little moments, though, when Tavore lets her mask drop, and that turns her into a nice little puzzle about her true feelings. Maybe that’s the point. Erikson wants us to keep questioning and examining the text. But I suspect that you can hear my frustration with his choices.

But that’s just the thing. Erikson leaves it totally up to us to pass judgement on any one character or any one thing. He never steps into that space, and that is something frustrating but also by design, and unique in a genre that caters to easy reading. It also means that as a reader you have to actively make up your mind about characters and events as if the series is an archeological dig. We see their behavior and sometimes their emotions, and nothing ever works out the way you expect it do to, and it is up to us to form judgement and root for people, if we are at all inclined to do that.

Other parts of Erikson’s writing are exciting. His magical landscape of realms and ascended Godlings has mystery and depth, with tantalising reflections and symmetries between powers. House of Chainsis the beginning of a second act in the grand scheme of things, and the journeys of the characters have the some symmetric configurations or are elliptic or rhythmic in their histories. This gives a mood of unspoken prophecies and unseen forces pulling the strings throughout the story. 

The infighting in Sha’ik’s court connects directly to larger mysteries, to the history of the warren of Shadow, to the Jade Statues and Otataral, to the Tiste Liosan. Apsalar and Crocus’s storyline and Trull Sengar’s storyline also add pieces to the puzzle, turning the second half of the book into a treatise on deeper mysteries, on powers at play that are much greater than the Whirlwind rebellion. Also, Tavore’s story is an interesting inversion of Coltaine’s from Deadhouse Gates. She’s distant, like Coltaine, and her army is literally retracing his steps, but in contrast to Deadhouse Gates there isn’t much action. Most of the book is a long slow burn towards fateful events at the end. Combine that with a shortage of gripping characters (besides Karsa) and the book felt very long.

Despite some misaligned expectations from my side, this is still a masterfully composed story. There’s a baseline of quality that is always there. The convergence of plots near the end has powerful, dramatic moments. There’s also just an enormous variety in the stories told and Erikson skill has notably improved over the books. But Erikson’s aims and experiments were just not very exciting for me this time around. This is Karsa’s book for me.

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The Crazy Story of Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 film made by Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog. It is one of multiple epic, grand films of his from the 1980s, most of them starring the German diva actor Klaus Kinski. Fitzcarraldo is a really fascinating one. An odd project, where the story behind the film is perhaps even more interesting than the film itself.

The film is based on real events. The Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald explored the Peruvian Amazon by steamship, and at one point forced his native workers to dismantle his steamship and transport it over a mountain to another river. This was the inspiration for Herzog to write his movie. In Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski plays a headstrong man obsessed with the idea of establishing an opera house in the Amazon – in Iquitos, a large city in the Peruvian Amazon. To fund this project, he buys a steamship to explore wild parts of the jungle for a possible rubber plantation.

So, what Herzog did was to fly to Iquitos and recreate the story on location, without using special effects. Herzog forced his crew to manually haul a 320-ton steamship up a steep hill, leading to many injuries. Which was crazy, for many reasons. One of them being that the original steamship was maybe 30 tons. More than a thousand indigenous extras were hired for the transportation of the steamship. Initially, Herzog built a village for the film set on tribal land without consulting the local tribe, which then burned down his set in retaliation. A year later, Herzog had found a new location and shooting began anew. Many of the indigenous extras moved hundreds of miles from home and had to live in squalid barracks. One got malaria. Another local logger was bitten by a snake and sawed off his foot on the spot.

After shooting 40 percent of the movie, the lead actor Jason Robards got dysentery and was replaced by Klaus Kinski, who proved to be unbearable on set. He was violently angry all the time, raging about food and conditions. The locals hated him. One of the chieftains of the people hired by Herzog offered in all seriousness to murder him, but Herzog declined. Of course, after replacing the first lead, 40% of the film had to be redone, which came as an unwelcome surprise to the workers. A local Catholic priest told Herzog to bring prostitutes with him, or the workers would go bonkers.

While shooting, an indigenous tribe launched a hit-and-run raid on the film camp. One man got shot in the throat with an arrow, yet survived. His wife was hit in the stomach, and Herzog had to make the split-second decision to perform eight hours of emergency surgery on a kitchen table, while he sprayed mosquito repellent around him to keep them away from the blood.

The film is worth seeing if only for the images of Iquitos and the Amazon, and the crazy endeavour of pushing a ship over a mountain. The film is wild, flawed, and unique. A documentary exists about it: Burden of Dreams (1982) but I haven’t seen it yet.

The steamship of Carlos Fitzcarrald still lies abandoned in the jungle and can be visited. The one deposited by Herzog is also said to be around somewhere.

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Review: Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Earth (1986)

7/10

Foundation and Earth (1986) is pretty much a direct sequel to Foundation’s Edge (1982). In case you can’t remember how Foundation’s Edge ended, the entire first chapter is a retread of “what wacky thing did Golan Trevize decide in the previous book?” and “what was this Gaia thing anyway?” So, Councilman Trevize and his history professor buddy Pelorat went out in search for Earth, the mythical place of birth for the human race. In a roundabout way they ended up on Gaia and Trevize made a fateful decision regarding Gaia. 

But Trevize doesn’t understand why he made that decision and feels that the answer lies on the real Earth when they find it. So the search is on again!

Notice the time gap between the publication of Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. Asimov wrote two other Robot novels in between, and Foundation and Earth not only puts a capstone on the entire Foundation series, but it also connects those Robot novels fully into that series. In the search for Earth, Trevize and Pelorat come across a couple of odd planets (Aurora, Solaria, Baleyworld…), and these are the same planets that were visited by Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw in the Robot books (The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1956), going all the way back to the books of the 1950s, and the newer books of the 1980s). A central feature of Foundation and Earth is to discover what happened to these planets 20,000 years after we have last seen them.

When Asimov embarked on the new Foundation novels in the 1980s, Doubleday asked him to double the page count to conform to the new standard. That doesn’t mean that Asimov gives us double the juicy content – just a stretched-out version of the kind of novel he used to write in the 1950s. He adds a lot of water to the meat. And that water comes in the form of long, drawn-out conversations, often going over the same points again and again. Trevize is constantly arguing with his fellow passengers about Gaia, ad nauseam. This is where Asimov’s skill in dialogue falls short and turns his characters into annoyingly one-note people. In his fiction, Asimov remained a writer from the 50s, writing short tales and having some problems with longer formats, and with adding computers and women to his stories. Aw, give the guy a break. He was old. 

The search for Earth is an entertaining quest. The fellowship navigates space, odd cultures and ancient myths in search for the truth. If A.E. van Vogt had not written The Voyage of the Space Beagle, Asimov could have used that title. But not all is well with this novel. Some sudden sexual escapades are ridiculous and come completely out of left field. Some astronomy lessons add realism but also feel needlessly inserted to up the page count. Some characters are just mouthpieces who stand ready to narrate the entire history of their planet to Trevize the moment he arrives. 

These newer Foundation novels hardly exist in the same spirit or the same conceptual landscape as the earlier books. The Foundation novels of the 50s had an awe-inspiring vision, in which we saw societies change over large time spans, and were a celebration of and a faith in the value of science and knowledge. Very little of that comes back in Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. The Seldon plan has been replaced by esoteric ideas about consciousness, and we stick with a group of uninspiring characters in a sliver of time. And for the Foundation series as a whole, it cannot hold its own in comparison with other classic series like Dune or The Book of the New Sun. Asimov can certainly play on that level with the strength of his ideas, but he does not have the quality of prose nor the poetic understanding of human interaction.

The story is still entertaining enough to follow and Asimov is an intelligent writer, so I can’t be too critical. I never regret reading one of his books, but high literature this is not, and even compared to many other books in the genre it has many rough edges.

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How To Make Your Own Epic Fantasy Series In 7 Easy Steps!

Let’s use the tropes of epic fantasy to bootstrap my mediocre imagination into the semblance of an epic fantasy trilogy.

Step 1: Select Two Cultures From History

For example:

  • Medieval Europe
  • Britisch Empire
  • Russian Empire
  • Ottoman Empire
  • Mughal Empire
  • Roman Empire
  • Ancient Greeks
  • African
  • American Indian
  • Aztec or Maya
  • Ancient Chinese
  • Ancient Japanese
  • Australian Aboriginal
  • Polynesian
  • Renaissance Italy

Roll some dice. Let’s go with… British Empire and Australian Aboriginal. But give them different names, like the Khalaan Empire and the Nhizi people.

Step 2: Take a Randomised Shape as Your World Map

There are websites for this. See for example https://azgaar.github.io/Fantasy-Map-Generator/

Or just spill some coffee on a piece of paper.

Ok. The Khalaan Empire is a colonial force with steam ships and controls large parts of the world map, while the Nhizi people occupy one dusty part of it. The Nhizi are part of the Empire.

Step 3: Create Main Characters From Each Culture

Let’s create two characters. Their race depends on the cultural entity they are part of but age and sexuality has to be randomised. Age can be omitted actually because young adult people fit the target demographic better. Let’s say…

A female officer in the navy of the Khalaam Empire. There must not have been many female officers serving in the early days of the British Empire but in this fantasy version there are

A male adolescent Nhizi. He’s a trapper and not very good at it. He has a secret homosexual relationship with another trapper but that’s not so important for the plot.

In time the two characters’ stories get entangled. The female officer represents the colonisers, the oppressors, while she also has to fight for her position against males inside the hierarchy of the navy. At some point she realises that she’s the oppressor towards the male gay trapper who is in a position of the oppressed people. A confusing position of privilege all around. SO MUCH SOCIAL COMMENTARY. OH THE COMPASSION.

Step 4: Create a Magic System

An obvious choice would be to take the shamanistic system of Australian Aboriginals and slap new names on it. Our young trapper can access the dreamworld and talk to animals and animal gods. Add magic rules to your heart’s content.

Step 5: Create a Political and/or Magical Problem That Will Affect The World

We have a whole palette of options to choose from. 

  • An ancient evil is awakening?
  • A world war is about to begin?
  • Maybe a lost-lost magical artefact?
  • Something about ancient gods? 
  • ….

And many more ideas like that. In any case, it has to be ancient or at least looking back to the past.

I got it. A ring of volcanos surrounds the land and inside the volcanos are sleeping dragon worms, and they are waking up. It has been foretold in the shamanistic dreams. But why? Oh my God, ice titans are coming from the frozen North and we need the dragon worms to defeat them and the peoples of the world need to cooperate to make it happen.

Step 6: Design the Structure Of Your Trilogy

It has to be a trilogy of course. The first book should start with separate POVs for the characters and the climax of the first book could bring them together for the first time. The book ends with a minor victory and with signs of a greater conflict on the horizon.

The second book sets up the larger playing field. It works up towards the final conclusion, which will be worked out in the final book. Ending with a large epic battle.

Step 7: Design the Journeys of the Characters

Where will the characters end up? That’s the most important thing. Find their destination and work backwards from there. 

The male trapper can whisper to the dragon worms because of his magic system. In the final battle of book 3, he will ride one. This is symbolic for his lifting up from an unprivileged situation into power, and for regaining his mojo (giant worm, get it?). The dragon worms need to be transported to the North with the steam ships of the Khalaam Empire. The female officer has no real character development. Instead, her sexist male superior gets himself killed through his own arrogance, proving her in the right all along.

Also, the dragon worms are an allegory for nuclear weapons. SO MUCH SOCIAL COMMENTARY. IT HAS SO MUCH TO SAY.

Finally: Design the Cover

Simple. Take some stock imagery of Aboriginal art and steam ships. Use an orange and blue colour scheme. Put the orange aboriginal art on the top half and the blue steam ships on the bottom half. 

Give it a random generic fantasy title. Land of Fire and Bone!

Part 1 of the Earth Awakens trilogy.

And Bob’s your uncle. You don’t even have to read it anymore. Now reshuffle the elements and do it again.

Posted in Books, Essays, Fantasy | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments