Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 in Review - I Really Need to Read More

Although I never managed to reach the productivity of the early stages of this blog, 2015 was a relatively good year for reviewing. In 2016 I haven't managed to equal that. Mostly because I simply read less and put more time in other activities. I haven't reviewed everything I read either, missing two novels. A total of 47 entries appeared on Random Comments this year. I also contributed 9 articles to, one of which is a review I didn't also write in English. All in all it is not bad but not quite what I had in mind in January either.


I read 34  novels, 4 collections, 3 novellas, 1 anthology and 11 pieces of short fiction this year. A total of 53. Of these I reviewed 51. All but two of these reviews appeared on Random Comments, the exception being the novel The Wan by Bo Balder, and the collection Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. I reviewed Chiang's collection on this blog in 2011 already. The Hebban edition is some 3,500 words long and quite different from the Random Comments edition. My reading amounts to roughly 15,000 pages of material, markedly down from last year. In fact, it is probably the lowest total since I started the blog. Next year's target of beating 2016's total should be easily achievable.

I managed to read an equal number of works by men and women this year, 26 each, with the anthology containing work by both men and women. I didn't consciously aim for an exact balance but it is nice to see that is how it turned out. As usual most of my reading was in English. I read only three translations this year. One from Chinese to English, one from English to Dutch and one from Swedish to Dutch. Three books were read and originally written in Dutch. That leaves 47 read and originally written in English. Although this year's crop is pretty varied as far as the background of the author is concerned, I did not manage to read many translations. Another thing to keep an eye on next year.

Lana contributed one review in 2016. The Stand by Stephen King.

Best of 2016

I read a lot of decent books this year but not that many that really stood out. In that respect, 2015 was a better year as well. There are a few that I do want to mention though, in no particular order. As always, these are drawn from what I read this year, they are not necessarily published in 2016.
  1. Central Station by Lavie Tidhar. Everything about this book is strange. It's is something between a collection and a novel but not quite a fixup either. The setting is unusual and the meandering plot is perhaps even more so. It is firmly grounded in science fiction though, with lots and lots of references to the classics in the genre. I would not be surprised to see this one end up on the Nebula shortlist.
  2. Planetfall by Emma Newman. A science fiction novel dealing with mental illness. It includes some interesting science fiction elements but the character building is what really attracted me to this novel. The sequel was published in November. I have to remember to order a copy of that.
  3. American Gods by Neill Gaiman. I came late to this novel and in hindsight I should have read it sooner. Apparently it is a love it or hate it novel. I loved it, and if you haven't already, you should read it too.
  4. Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston. A triumphant return to the world of Castle. Fans of this series will want to read it. It's a book that, despite the fantastic setting, very much deals with the problems of of our present world.
  5. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. First book in a space opera trilogy. It is one of the most exciting books in that particular subgenre I have read in ages. Again, this one might end up on an award shortlist or two.
Books that almost made the list are Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho by Auke Hulst, Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald and The City & The City by China Miéville.


Traffic is once again down, which is not surprising given the fact that I produced less content this year. More troubling is the fact that about 10% of it comes from a location in Russia specializing in link spam. They have been very active in trying to get me to vote for Trump (even after the election was done), buying a particular kind of blue pill and other nonsense like that in the past few months. If I weed out all the spam these are the most visited articles.
  1. The Valley of Horses - Jean M. Auel
  2. Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt
  3. Sarum - Edward Rutherfurd
  4. The Lucky Strike - Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. Death's End - Cixin Liu
  7. The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel
  8. Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee
  9. Interview: Steph Swainston on The Wheel of Fortune
  10. The Jesus Incident - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Three 2016 articles, which is better than last year. Hex rating high is also understandable. I reviewed the Dutch language edition of the novel in 2014 but the English edition appeared this year. My very first author interview made it to the list as well. I'm very pleased with that. The rest are older articles that just keep going. Most of them have been on this list in previous years as well.


Nothing really drastic. I am considering adding some of my writings in Dutch to the blog. I have enough of those now that it would make a nice addition. It would mean tweaking the site a bit and I don't think I will have the time for that in the next few months however. Maybe a bit later in the year. I also want to review more short fiction. Collections and anthologies tend to dwell on the to read stack too long. Which is a shame. A lot of interesting stuff is published in the short form. To make a start with this I am going to change my approach to reading short fiction a bit an review more individual pieces. I don't have that many unread novels on the to read stack at the moment so January will be short fiction month on Random Comments. I'll try to read and review as many as I can next month.

An that concludes another year on Random Comments. I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2017 and hope to see you all around on the blog again.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Dune - Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert is one of those books that are impossible to review. It is a monument in the genre, described as the novel that is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. It won a Hugo Award and appears on every list of must read science fiction. The book spawned five sequels by Herbert himself and a whole (mostly to be avoided) shelf of books by his son in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. There is a movie and a mini-series and a second attempt at a movie in the works. The book has been read by just about everybody with an interest in science fiction and there must be thousands of reviews out there. Everything I could possibly say about this book has been said several times already, and probably more eloquent than I could manage. So what can I possibly add to that?

Not a whole lot I've decided. So there won't be a review this week. I will say that it is the first time I read this book in English and the Dutch translation is quite good. I'm not quite sure of how many times I've read it in total. Four or five times at least. I think it is a novel that deserves its status as a landmark in the genre. For all its flaws, and it does have a few, it is a defining book in the new age era of science fiction. But then, I don't have to tell you that. You'll likely have read it already. If not, then you really ought to. Preferably before that movie they are planning hits the theatres. If you insist on reading a review however, go read the one Lana wrote a while back.

I'll be back in a few days to close the year at Random Comments.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Renegade's Magic - Robin Hobb

I'm a bit low on recent releases. There are a few waiting for me under the Christmas tree but since that is a few days off yet, I have taken the opportunity to read an older title. Renegade's Magic, the final book in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, is probably the least popular book she wrote. Hobb is not known for writing fast paced novels, but even by those standards this concluding book does an excellent job of trying the reader's patience. While I am still fascinated with the premise and the worldbuilding, I do have my reservations about this novel. To properly explain why, I'm going to have to give away a bit more of the plot than I usually do. Be advised there are spoilers for the entire trilogy ahead.

Nevare has finally been cast out completely from Gernian society. His friends and former colleagues think he is dead. Magic has enabled him to get away, but he has quite literally lost everything. There is only one option open to him, follow the magic and see if the Specks will take him in. Once again the magic interferes and the Speck side of Nevare's personality takes over completely. Gernian Nevare becomes a spectator in his own body, watching helplessly as the magic leads the Specks into a desperate action against the invaders. Reason, fear and disease have all failed, fire will have to do the job. It is all or nothing for the Specks, in a fight that is so hopelessly unbalanced that victory seems impossible.

Magic has messed with Nevare's mind a lot over the course of the previous books and in this novel his personality completely splits. The Speck trained Great One takes over and the Gernian noble takes a back seat. Like the previous two books, Renegade's Magic is completely written in the first person. That means that for most of the novel, the narrator is not actually in control of what is going on. He watches the story unfold from the back of his Speck self's mind. For most writers, it would be a challenge to keep this interesting for a few chapters, Hobb attempts to do this for most of the novel. Combined with her tendency to plot the novel at a moderate pace, it can't fail to bore some readers. The inevitable confrontation with the Gernians and the equally inevitable realization that Nevare is doomed to fail as long as he is divided against himself, are a long time coming.

What we do get, is a detailed look at Speck  society. Their resistance to Gernian expansion is put into cultural perspective. Their society is ruled by magic but they are not nearly as ignorant of the outside world as the Gernians seem to think. What Hobb does very well is show us the desperation of the Specks and the huge price their magical resistance extracts from them. Being a Great One is not an enviable fate. Hobb also pokes a few holes in the idea that the Specks are a peaceful people by shedding light on their past conflict with the Kidona. It is another example of how well developed Hobb's world is.

The overarching conflict between the Specks and the Gernians reaches a status quo in the book. Not so much because of the Specks fighting in the more traditional sense of the word, but more because the magic manages to redirect the attention of the Gernians. Easier gains are made elsewhere, rooting out the rebellious Specks is no longer worth the effort. Hobb may have meant it as a happy ending but if you look at the situation more closely, it seems like a matter of time before the conflict will reignite. The Specks' respite is dependant on a gold vein and the goodwill of an eccentric Queen. When the gold runs out and the Queen's attention shifts, an ocean port will still be desirable. The cynic would say that the Specks have been put into a reservation but haven't realized it yet. With no noticeable change in the Gernian attitude towards the Specks, it very much seems like a temporary solution.

From reviews of the previous two books it should be clear I don't particularly like Nevare. His slavish devotion to what society and the Good God expects of him is very annoying at times. What's worse, in this book he has no control and plenty of time to brood over his mistakes and misfortune. After yet another failure, by Nevare's Speck self, he comes to the realization that without becoming one, there is no way he can ever succeed. A full merging of these two perspectives would have resulted in a drastic development of this character. Too drastic for the author apparently. She opts not to take that route and that makes the ending of this novel very disappointing.

Hobb effectively separates the two and allows Nevare to slip back into Gernian society with most of his prejudice and conservatism  intact. To add insult to injury, he is essentially rewarded for it by reconciling himself with his family and being appointed heir to both Burvelle estates. There is talk of buying him a commission too. In short, everything noble's son Nevare could possibly want out of life is within reach. After all he has endured because of society's confining social structure, all the misery he has seen caused by a rigid set of religious rules and cultural prejudice, he ends up fitting precisely in the role the Good God teachings destined him to fulfil.

Structurally the novel seems to follow the same pattern the final books in the Tawny Man trilogy also follows. The climax of the trilogy is quite early in the book and then Hobb takes her time wrapping things up. Although it is not quite as pronounced as in Fool's Fate, the final chapters do feel like Hobb wrapping things up. The central conflict has been (temporarily) resolved, whether or not Nevare knows it. The rest is just rewarding him for being such a dutiful protagonist.

Looking back at this reread of the series I think that the very thing that is Hobb's strength in the FitzChevalric novels is turning against her here. After three books inside Nevare's head I still think he is a short-sighted prick. While one can admire his work ethic and to an extent his loyalty, he is simply too unlikeable and static to make for a really interesting character. For a single first person point of view narrative, that is a big problem. Not even Hobb's worldbuilding can quite overcome this issue for me. Hobb obviously has things to say in these books, mostly about various forms of discrimination, but they always seem to stay one step removed from the characters. I enjoyed reading these books to a point, but they are not among the best she has written.

Book Details
Title: Renegade's Magic
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 662
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-06-075764-9
First published: 2008

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ghost Talkers - Mary Robinette Kowal

In the Netherlands it is not very noticeable, but our neighbours are in the middle of a string of centenaries of major events in the First World War. The period was no picnic in our neck of the woods, but the Netherlands did manage to stay neutral through the four years of bloodshed taking place elsewhere in Europe. As a result, the conflict that enveloped the world some two decades later receives much more attention. Personally, I have always had more of an interest in the Great War. It was the end of nineteenth century Europe and the beginning of a great many things that still shape the world today. Given the enormous changes the conflict brought about, it is not surprising a number of works of speculative fiction are appearing that deal with the period. Ghost Talkers is one of those books.

The year is 1916 and the Battle of the Somme is in full swing. In an effort to move the offensive forward, no means are left untried. Ginger Stuyvesant is an American heiress engaged to the British captain Benjamin Harford. She is a medium working with the Spirit Corps. Her corps has found a way to compel the souls of dead soldiers to report in before they move on to the great beyond and relay the circumstance of their deaths. This way, even in death, they can relay essential tactical information. The existence of this corps is a closely guarded secret. When Ginger uncovers evidence of a traitor in the British ranks, she soon finds herself embroiled in a game of espionage in which she is the main target.

The speculative element of the novel takes the upper hand in the story. It is very much a fantasy novel and only then a historical one. There is still quite a bit of history in it though. The title may surprise some readers, as it appears to be an allusion to a group of soldiers better known for their role in the Second World War. On a limited scale the US army did employ native American code talkers in the final stages of the war. The US had not entered the war at the time of the battle of the Somme however, and using codes to securely relay messages takes different forms in the book. Kowal does not focus on the battle that is the background of the story. Instead she depicts life right behind the lines with an emphasis on the role of women in the war effort.

There are lots of little details in the story that show the author has researched the period in detail. The presence of a soldier named Tolkien on the battlefield (his experiences at the Somme would work his way into The Lord of the Rings), the literature discussed, the social mores and how the war influences them, the support structure for the soldiers and the English used in the dialogue. Whether or not she succeeds in that last aspect, I will leave to readers better qualified than me. It didn't strike me as out of place though. If you are looking for details on the actual fighting this book is probably not the one you are looking for, but as a snapshot of that particular moment in history it works nicely.

The romance in the novel did not really convince though. A stolen kiss here, a double entendre there, it is all very coy and proper and in line with what one would expect of two well-bred, early twentieth century, young people courting. It is almost cliché and at odds with the situation they are in however. Both of them are in constant mortal danger. War tends to loosen social restrictions, it encourages people to seize the moment while they still can. Ginger and Benjamin do not seem to entertain thoughts on their own mortality even in the face of the atrocious losses the British army suffered in the opening stages of the battle of the Somme. You'd think they would at the very least be a bit less resigned to waiting for their marriage.

The speculative element is provided by Kowal's version of spiritualism. She admits to adapting existing religious beliefs and parapsychology to the needs of the story. It is a set of beliefs that has always attracted a lot of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. That made it a bit hard to fully suspend my disbelief while reading this novel. It has to be said that Kowal uses this reputation well though. By discrediting the practice in public, the British try to avoid raising suspicion to what is going on.

Ginger's talent is a bit of a problem for the military commanders. She is a woman and not even a British one at that. As much as her superior would like to ignore her, he cannot without paying the price. This bit of rampant sexism can't be held in check permanently of course. Ginger has to push harder than any of the men serving under the commander to get him to listen. A coalition of people usually ignored by the powers that be help her get her point across.

What Kowal does very well with the speculative element of the story, is use it to explore love and loss. For a medium, death is not the end. It creates possibilities that a normal person would not have. It allows you to hold on to a loved one in this world, or conversely, to follow into the beyond. The temptation to be selfish or just give up can be overwhelming at times. Ginger goes through all that and more in what is a very harrowing couple of days for her. What makes this novel a good one, whatever you may think of the premise, is how Kowal brings her characters to life. Once the story gets going, their affection, traumas, and triumphs leap from the page. It is a very clever book in a way too. Although they are impossible to miss, Kowal never lets her history, supernatural influences, or feminist elements dominate the story.

All things considered, Ghost Talkers is a book that would not have worked for me in the hands of a lesser writer. Kowal manages to pull it off though. It's a novel that could have gone of the track in half a dozen ways but the author manages to bring it to a convincing close. It strikes a good balance between the various themes and the demands of the story. It's a pretty fast paced story and not a particularly long novel but it has quite a lot lurking beneath the surface. I'm not sure if it will make mine, but I do know this book will end up on a few year's best lists and maybe even pick up an award nomination or two. It's probably not everybody's cup of tea but clearly one of the more notable releases of 2016.

Book Details
Title: Ghost Talkers
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 304
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7825-5
First published: 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fair Rebel - Steph Swainston

After a six year break, the fifth novel in Steph Swainston's Castle setting appears this month. Her previous novel, Above the Snowline (2010), is a prequel to the Castle trilogy. Fair Rebel continues the story of the trilogy. It is set some fifteen years after The Modern World (2007). Readers can pick up this novel without having read Above the Snowline. The novel reads like Swainston never really left Fourlands. It is a seamless continuation of the story and I think most readers will agree it was more than worth the wait. Swainston is clearly not done with her creation. She leaves us with a bit of a cliffhanger and the promise of a sixth novel in the making.

A decade and a half after the disastrous attempt to flood the insects out of an area of paper covered land, Castle is ready to go on the offensive again. This time with a new weapon. Gunpowder has been introduced, and with it a whole range of destructive weapons. In an attempt to gain ground on the insects, a plan is devised involving large quantities of the new explosive. Just when the trap is about to be sprung, it becomes clear that a significant portion of the gunpowder is not in the barrels it was supposed to be in. While the offensive grinds to a halt, Jant is sent out to investigate. He soon finds the trail of a conspiracy that threatens the foundations of Castle's power, and with it the worlds most powerful defence against the insects.

The novel opens with a scene that, although the technology is still a bit behind, reminded me of the western front battle fields in World War I. The use of artillery barrages and mining is very reminiscent of some of the huge battles that took place a century ago. The technological mismatch adds an element though. Fourland's armies are still in the process of figuring out the best strategies to match their new firepower, which older technology can still be applied effectively, and how to overcome the disadvantages of gunpowder and spherical musket balls. It's another example of how different levels of technology are woven into the narrative without appearing to be out of place. it is something that continually impressed me over the course of the series.

Although the opening of the novel echoes battles a century old, Fair Rebel is a book very much influenced by recent events. What Jant stumbles upon is in essence a terrorist campaign. Swainston shows us in the novel how a determined person can use the fault lines in society caused by economic inequality, discrimination and racism and tap into bottled up feelings of resentment, jealousy and hatred to unleash terrible violence. Swainston has never been easy on her characters or the bystanders that get caught in the crossfire, but this novel features some of the most brutal events in the series.

Terrorism, if the media and politicians are to be believed, is the great evil of our time. The senseless killing over political or religious differences, often including many who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time is considered an act of supreme evil. And yet, it is perpetrated be people who, despite all their misguided actions, have feelings, loved ones and dreams. Swainston could have chosen to let Jant battle a faceless evil but chooses not to do so. Instead, the main terrorist in the novel is given a point of view. We get to see their motivations and how events affect them. What Swainston does in this novel is uncomfortably close to many events occurring in the world today. Anger and violence toppling power structures without regard for the damage it causes and without a plan for what comes after. She makes it look irrational but understandable all the same.

The other side of the story is of course the temptation to go along with the hatred, fear and suspicion offered by the terrorist. It is tempting to generalize, to suspect whole segments of the population, and to deepen the rift by taking sweeping action against the terrorists. Centuries of life experience clearly does not make the immortals immune to this temptation. The spiral of suspicion, hate and violence is laid out clearly in the book. One does not have to look far in the real world to see this happening.

Swainston also continues to make us doubt the main characters. Seen from the secondary point of view, Jant is a terrible character. He is viewed with a mix of awe, fear and contempt. He has become more comfortable with his power and is ruthless when dealing with his enemies. A rather sharp contrast to the self-doubting, whining addict he can be when seen from his point of view. Emperor San himself is not free of suspicion either. At the end of The Modern World an entity known as the Vermiform accuses him of not developing Fourland's resources to their full potential and of trying to maintain a status quo with the insects. The sudden appearance of gunpowder soon after, seems to indicate that accusation stung. After facing off with the Vermiform, San doesn't seem as distantly all knowing as he did in the previous books. That Olympic quality he (and many of the immortals) started out with has tarnished. He looks like a tyrant. And, what's worse, downright vulnerable.

I did feel Swainston leaves us hanging a bit in the final chapters of the novel. While one part of the story is resolved, a rather large cliffhanger is left to deal with in the next volume. If that sort of thing doesn't bother you, Fair Rebel is a very good read. It is probably the fastest paced of the Castle novels I have read so far. It is one of those books where you just have to read the next volume to see how the story continues. After four novels, many fantasy worlds begin to feel familiar. There clearly is much more to explore in Fourlands though. I eagerly await the next novel to see what else Swainston has in store for us.

Book Details
Title: Fair Rebel
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 322
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-081697
First published: 2016

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nova - Samuel R. Delany

A very young Samuel R. Delany burst upon the science fiction scene in the 1960s. In rapid succession he produced a number of stories that are now considered new wave classics between 1962 and 1968. After that publications topped for a number of years, and his next notable speculative fiction novel is Dhalgren (1975), which is highly regarded in science fiction circles . Nova is the final novel of the first part of his career. It appeared in 1968 and was nominated for a Hugo the following year. Having only read one other book by Delany, Babel-17 (1966), I'm not really in a good position to say anything about how this work fits into his oeuvre. What I did notice was the same kind of almost uncontrollable energy in the writing. Nova is a wild ride.

In the 32nd century humanity has colonized the galaxy. This expansion is fuelled by a group of super heavy elements (300+ on the periodic table) collectively known as Illyrion. It is extremely rare but the energy contained in these atoms is huge. Captain Lorq von Ray is on a mission to gather Illyrion at the source, the heart of a star going nova. Doing so will change the power dynamic of the galaxy and those currently in power would rather keep it that way. The captain and his eccentric crew are in for a wild ride into the heart of a sun, if they live long enough to get there.

There is a bit of hard (and very speculative) science in the synopsis, and it does have links to golden age science fiction. There is a reference to Isaac Asimov's Foundation for instance, and to Clark Ashton Smith, a prolific author in the pulp and golden age of science fiction. In most regards, it is a new wave novel. It has been described as a grail quest in space for instance, and the crew has been likened to the Argonauts. The mystical aspects of the novel are certainly much more important than the science. Von Ray's grail (or golden fleece) is a vast supply of energy.

Another element, one that hard science fiction fans may frown upon, is very prominent role of tarot in the story. Most characters seem to believe the outcome of a reading. The one exception is the Mouse, a Gypsy character. The novel is showing its age here, these days he would probably have been a Romani character. It reminded me a bit of how the characters seek guidance in the I Ching in Phillip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle (1962). The belief in tarot is so prevalent in the novel that even the Mouse feels uncomfortable at a reading. Fortunately Delany does not appear to have used tarot to guide his plot.

There is a political element to the novel as well. All the characters have sockets installed that allows them to operate machinery with their brain. A machine as extension of a body. Distancing workers from the product of their labour, so Delany argues, leads to a lack of satisfaction in one's job, to unhappiness, and ultimately depression. It's an idea that runs parallel to Marx' ideas on capital. Just as separating workers from the product of their labour, separating them from the means of production has undesirable consequences for society. Delany's society has addressed these issues and while class still exists - Marx would be disappointed - the people are better for it. It's a future that moves away from automation and computerisation. Delany nods at Asimov's work but clearly takes a different route for his future.

Delany overlays these reflections on society, politics and economy with a story of rivalry. A merchant prince and a pirate lock horns over Illyrion. The outcome of their struggle could reshape the galaxy and both men have very different opinions on what that shape should be. To raise the stakes even further there is a personal element to their conflict as well. Grievances go deep and in the scenes where the rivals meet, the tension ranges from barely suppressed to outright, naked hatred. The interesting thing about this conflict is that Delany makes it galaxy spanning and deeply personal at the same time. Delany draws them larger than life but it is still a nice bit of characterisation.

What struck me most about the novel though, and I suppose the same is true for Babel-17, is the prose. There is so much urgency in the text. The novel reads like Delany had to get the story out. The prose drives the story on relentlessly. It does not have the same attention to poetry and linguistics as Babel-17 does - that novel deals with an alien language after all - but for all that, the writing is something special. Delany's work hit the genre hard and his prose is a very important factor in that.

If I had to pick a favourite I would probably pick Babel-17, simply because the subject appealed to me more. Nova is a superb example of what the new wave accomplished in the genre however. It's a story that on the surface connects with much of what has gone before in the genre. If you look under the surface however, new ideas, elements and themes enter into the narrative. Add to that Delany's distinct voice and you have a novel that is bound to attract attention. It's easy to see how this novel became as influential as it did. Nova is a novel everybody with an interest in classic science fiction should read.

Book Details
Title: Nova
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 241
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-473-211991-9
First published: 1968

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Heksenhoeve - An Janssens

Over the past few years I have been trying to keep an eye on fantasy and science fiction (although the latter is virtually non-existent) originally published in Dutch. On one such foray I encountered An Janssens Drakenkoningin. It won a contest organized by one of the leading publishers of speculative fiction in the Netherlands. While not perfect, the novel showed promise and I ended up reading the two sequels as well. In her fourth novel, Janssens takes a different direction. Where her previous three novels were fairly traditional fantasies, Heksenhoeve is something in between horror and a thriller.The title literally means 'witches' farmstead', despite not actually featuring witches. Maybe bewitched farmstead' would be better. Although Janssens does not quite manage to keep the tension up in this novel, it is a very interesting change of pace in her career.

In the Belgian university town of Leuven, a brutally murdered student is found. The body is mutilated and several bits appear to be missing. Sander Dats, on the sufferance of his uncle working of the federal police, does not buy the easy explanation of a jealous ex-boyfriend being responsible. The trail leads to a nineteenth century farmstead in the woods outside of town. It has some very peculiar inhabitants but he can't quite seem to convince his uncle there is more going on than meets the eye. In the mean time Sander's ex-girlfriend has her own run-in with the farmhouse. Looking for a good location to practice her photography she enters the woods on her own. She soon discovers she should have stayed away.

One of the things that makes this novel interesting is the language Janssens uses. She is from Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. For anybody who has Dutch as a first language, it is obvious which side of the border someone is from as soon as they open their mouth. In writing however, that difference largely disappears. Written Dutch is very standardised and most fantasy novels, whether translated or originally written in Dutch, go to great lengths to weed out all regional variations of spoken Dutch. You may get away with a few bits and pieces in the dialogue but even that is rare. While I dislike the sloppy use of language and the rampant use of English when a good Dutch alternative exists, I have always enjoyed this regional variation. Might have something to do with living in various places in the Netherlands.

In Heksenhoeve there is a fair bit of Flemish and, surprisingly, it is not contained to just the dialogue. Some thought must have gone into how much Flemish was acceptable as Janssens probably sells more books north of the border. Janssens even varies it with each character. For some it is just a choice of words, for others it is completely phonetically written dialect. Standardisation has its uses, but when I read a book like this I am reminded that the richness of language goes far beyond what is considered correct.

Janssens uses two point of view characters to tell her story. They are both flawed heroes in a way. Sander is suffering from a compulsive disorder that requires him to count everything and attach meanings to random numbers. Being around him would drive most people crazy in under an hour and as a result he is lonely. Being acutely aware of numbers also makes him see connections others would miss though, and he feels compelled to follow up on them. Janssens shows how his disorder both limits him and helps him find clues. A sympathetic view on mental problems is rare in genre fiction but here we have a fine example.

Anouk has her own problems to deal with. Like Sander, she is lonely. Her relationship with her mother is complicated and she is single again after breaking up with Sander. When her thirtieth birthday comes around and there isn't really anybody to celebrate with, self pity threatens to take over. Anouk may be lonely, she is also independent, resourceful and strong, and brutally honest with herself. Qualities she will need to survive her ordeal. Janssens manages to avoid making Anouk into a damsel in distress when the story could easily have accommodated that.

While I liked the characters and the writing, the novel does have problems keeping the tension up. The plot is fairly straightforward and not all that difficult to predict. It is obvious early on that the official explanation for the murder doesn't fit. It is obvious where to find the real perpetrator, it is obvious what the farmstead is hiding. In terms of suspense Anouk's story line is probably the most successful.  For most of the novel she is in much more immediate danger than Sander though. While he puts what could generously be called his career on the line, she is in mortal danger. Even in Anouk's story line you never really doubt the outcome though. Janssens is simply too generous in doling out clues to the reader to make it a real mystery.

Janssens tries something different in this novel and for the most part it succeeds. While the real tension in Heksenhoeve never really takes hold, there are quite a few things to enjoy. If you look at the character development and structure of Janssens' fantasy novels, Heksenhoeve is an improvement. I enjoyed her use of Flemish in the book, the characterisation and the setting of the novel. As a thriller it may not really thrill but if you look beyond that, there is a lot to like.

Book Details
Title: Heksenhoeve
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh-Sijthoff
Pages: 283
Year: 2016
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-7082-9
First published: 2016

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Modern World - Steph Swainston

The Modern World (2007)  is the third volume in Steph Swainston's Castle series. It was published as Dangerous Offspring in the US. That title has a nice double meaning to it but it is also a bit of a spoiler, I think I prefer the UK title. In November a new Castle novel, Fair Rebel,  will appear that continues the story of Castle's struggle against the insects. It's probably a good thing I arrived late to this series. While the novel has a strong story arc of its own, it leaves the reader with some very interesting questions to be answered as well. Arriving late saved me a nine years wait. For those who did have to wait, the synopsis released for Fair Rebel hints at getting at least some of the answers in that book.

Castle has been on the defensive against the insects for most of the many centuries they have spent fighting them. Frost, Castle's architect, has now found a way to push them back. By constructing a large dam, a recently lost area is flooded in hopes of driving the insects out. This offensive is hailed in the media as a turning point in their struggle. A triumph of technology over the insects and the beginning of a campaign to reclaim the lost lands. Victory, so the reporters are told, is almost assured. Nobody seems to realize that flooding a large area of insect infested land is in fact a monumentally stupid thing to do. Until it is too late.

The novel opens with a fine bit of Castle propaganda and public perception is definitely a theme in this book. How the population sees Castle and the emperor himself is hugely important to the characters and playing the media is one tool in Castle's arsenal. It's one of those areas where Swainston's world is very modern, a huge contrast with its military technology. The press conference is one in a series of scenes in the novel where characters misdirect, mislead or tell bald faced lies. Lying, misleading, manipulating, -  being immortal doesn't make one a better person it would seem.

The novel has two main narrative strands. The first deals with the insects and Castle's attempt to push them back. It quickly turns into the largest military operation Fourlands has ever seen. Swainston makes sure the reader understands the enormous strain being placed on Castle and Fourlands as a whole in mounting such a huge campaign. It is such an enormous undertaking that some see it as a sign of the end of times. Especially when the emperor leaves Castle for the first time in ages. The focus is as much on what it takes to field such an army as it is on the actual fighting. The way Swainston describes just how unwieldy such a large force is, and how devastating the consequences of a wrong move can be, is impressive.

Despite my admiration for Swainston's grasp of logistics, I thought the second strand the more interesting of the two. Internal conflicts in Fourlands are a theme throughout the books and The Modern World is no exception. In this case the main source of conflict is the troubled relationship between Lightning, Castle's archer, and his mortal daughter Cyan. One has lived well over a thousand years, the other is seventeen. You can't even say it is a generational conflict, they are ages apart. It is telling that Jant, who at just over two centuries old considers himself young for an immortal, can more easily see things from Cyan's perspective than from that of one of his fellow Castle members.

Of course this connection with Cyan also tells us a bit about his character. She may have some legitimate complaints about how she is raised, that doesn't take away from the fact that she is a spoilt brat, and a rather clueless one at that. She probably appeals to Jant's rebellious streak. The eventual resolution of the conflict should make him think though. In the end his actions surprise them all. It leaves Jant with one of several complicated questions to consider at the end of the book.

Some five years have passed since the events in No Present Like Time (2005) and Jant, while still clean, is still feeling the pull of the drug he was addicted to. Swainston again shows us almost the entire novel from his perspective - one chapter is seen from Lightning's perspective - and in a few places conveys the message to the reader he is an unreliable narrator. It's a constant in these three books but what is different about The Modern World is that we get to see a number of characters very bluntly speak their mind. Jant is fairly accepting of the structure of Castle and his place in it. Perhaps even to the point of ignoring the oddities in the emperor's decisions. Sometimes an outsider perspective can be refreshing indeed.

Castle is not quite what it appears to be seems to be the message of this book. Don't believe everything you are told. Don't take things at face value. Swainston makes us question just about everything we think we know about Castle and Fourlands. There obviously is a lot more to this tale, which makes it all the more surprising that the author went on to write a prequel about Jant's early years next. You can feel Castle is at a turning point, even if it takes a while for the full impact to be felt. The Modern World deepens the reader's understanding of Fourlands and Castle in ways neither of the previous two books did. It is without a doubt my favourite of the three novels in this omnibus.

Book Details
Title: The Modern World, part three of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 302 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2007

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Reality Dysfunction - Peter F. Hamilton

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton is the massive first novel in his Night's Dawn trilogy. Hamilton is one of a group of British writers producing what can be considered a reinvented form of space opera. He is usually listed with people like Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter and Paul J, McAuley. I haven't read too extensively in that particular subgenre, the only author on that list whose work I am familiar with is Alastair Reynolds. While I can see the similarities in their approach to science fiction, this novel leads me to believe Reynolds is the better writer. In The Reality Dysfunction the emphasis seems to be very much on the soap opera part of the subgenre.

In the twenty-seventh century, humanity has colonized many planets and made contact with alien species. Genetic engineering has made widespread adaptations to living in space or alien environments possible. Space ships can be grown as well as built. With this increase in technological capabilities, the destructive power of weapons has increased as well. The Confederation navy is keeping the peace however, and a prosperous future for all of humanity is within reach. Then, an indentured criminal makes contact with a truly terrifying entity. It has made contact with sentient species before and caused the suicide of an entire species. This extinct species called the phenomenon the reality dysfunction. A nightmare of galactic proportions is about to descend on humanity.

The first thing that will strike the reader about this novel is that it is huge. I read it during my trip to Norway two weeks ago and its very size is why I picked it. One book that would take a while to finish but doesn't take up much space in the suitcase. My mass market paperback weighs in at 1,225 pages. I think it is probably in the 400,000 words range. In other words, there are trilogies shorter than this novel. It has to be said that Hamilton paints on a large canvas but that still does not excuse the excessive length of it. The novel is in fact severely bloated. So much so that more than a few readers will find it exhausting or even unreadable.

It takes the author about 200 pages to even give us the first hint about the nature of the threat humanity is facing. Most of the first  half of the novel is reserved for worldbuilding and introducing a very large cast of characters. Every location the novel visits is introduced with an  infodump of several pages on the history, settlement, development, society and environment of the planet. Reading a lot of fantasy, I can admire a good bit of worldbuilding but Hamilton manages to make it tiresome in this book. With a bit of editing and a better balance between pace and worldbuilding this book could have been, and should have been, a lot shorter.

The cast is huge but it does have two more or less central characters. The first is a trader and captain of the star ship Lady MacBeth Joshua Calvert. He could have been modelled on Poul Anderson's David Falkayn. Roguish, independent and resourceful, Calvert has a good eye for the best deal and an even better eye for opportunities to fool the authorities. He also has a way with women that is rather grating. Not until the very end of the novel does someone point out to him that he essentially treats them like shit. The sex scenes involving Calvert are another repetitive element that could have been axed to keep the page count down. I had mixed feelings about this character but he is the best developed one of the bunch. Most of the other characters are much more in service of the plot.

Where Calvert can be thought of as the protagonist, Quinn Dexter is clearly the antagonist. Originally from Earth, a place crippled by overpopulation and environmental degradation, he is convicted to indentured service on Lalonde. He is a rather stereo-typical villain. Egoistic (a trait he shares with Calvert), ruthless and determined to carve out a position of power for himself on his new home planet. He does so by any means necessary, until he runs into someone even more dangerous than he is anyway. I could say that there is not much development in his character but that would strictly speaking not be true. He more or less transforms into another person. Going into that would give away too much of the plot though.

Although the threat encountered by colonists on the planet Lalonde is the main conflict in the novel, there is quite a bit more going on in human occupied space. Humanity has split into two branches: the Adamists and the Edenists. The Edenists are extensively genetically engineered humans. They form a mostly atheist society without much in the way of social stratification. The Adamists are more diverse but tend to keep the genetic engineering down to very basic levels, like eliminating hereditary disease. There is a good deal of mistrust between the two, which I suspect Hamilton will exploit in the next two volumes. This dichotomy is one of the many present in the novel. Hamilton likes doing things in two, which does not always result in the most nuanced of visions.

While there were quite a few things I wasn't too impressed with in this novel, I have to admit it is compulsively readable after the first four hundred pages or so. You really want to find out how the story of this or that character continues even if you have to wait a hundred pages for them to show up again. In essence, The Reality Dysfunction is a great beach read. It'll keep you reading while not being overly demanding. There is much better written space opera out there in my opinion, but I can still see why Hamilton has acquired an audience. Maybe I'll even pick up the second volume the next time I'm travelling.

Book Details
Title: The Reality Dysfunction
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: PAN Books
Pages: 1,225
Year: 1997
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-34032-8
First published: 1996

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Blood of the Hoopoe - Naomi Foyle

The Blood of the Hoopoe is the third volume in Naomi Foyle's Gaian Chronicles. The series combines Gaia theory, Middle Eastern culture, and a post-apocalyptic future in unexpected ways. I got the first book in a giveaway a couple of years ago and decided to stick with the series. Although these books might not be everybody's cup of tea,  I enjoyed reading the previous two volumes a lot. This third volume picks up right after the end of Rook Song. While this third volume is an enjoyable read, I did feel that it lacked a strong story arc of its own. If this series was a trilogy I'd say it suffered from middle book syndrome.

Astra is striking out on her own again. Together with Muzi she is heading into the desert in search of her father. She is still uncomfortable with the role of prophesied unifier that has been cast upon her. This journey may help her find a direction. She leaves behind the Is-Land/Non-Land border in turmoil. The violence has claimed many lives and the situation is rapidly deteriorating towards all out war. With the Sec Gens, Is-Land is well defended, but their defences may well be stretched if more Non-Landers join the opposition. What's more, the leadership of the Sec Gens is beginning to show a worrying disregard of human lives. The rot within is perhaps an even bigger threat than the external enemy.

We get to see quite a bit more of the world than Is-Land and its borders in this novel. Astra takes us further into the polluted wasteland that lies beyond the paradise she grew up in. It is a place littered with the remains of crimes against Gaia and the evidence of the foolish wars fought in the region. It gives Astra new insights into the world and its history, some of which the Gaian elders did not think needed to be included in her education. The place she travels through is a fascinating mix of truly ancient references and more modern history and mythology. It ranges from references to ancient Sumer and Akkadia to early Arabic writing and then on to a lengthy passage containing an account of the ongoing civil war in Syria (including a very unflattering depiction of Bashar al-Assad) turned into something that is part history, part legend. I'm pretty sure I missed half of it.

Part of experiencing life beyond Is-Land is Astra's collision with patriarchal societies. Her upbringing included a level of sexual freedom and gender equality that is unprecedented in the world beyond Is-Land. When she falls in love with Muzi, a complicated relationship fraught with cultural clashes, miscommunication and arguments evolves. They are almost completely on opposite sides of the issue. To Astra sex and marriage are not linked, while Muzi feels he must marry her and gets frustrated when she doesn't agree to a permanent arrangement. Quite a few of the characters in the novel have more pragmatic opinions on the issue but Astra and Muzi are young and sure of how the world is supposed to work. There is something endearing about the whole affair but sometimes you just want to tell them to stop being idiots too.

The novel follows events closer to Is-Land as well. Partly through the eyes of Peat, the Is-Land Sec Gen and Astra's brother. He spirals deeper in the corrupt mess that is Is-Land's border guard. His leader is a man with a distinct sadistic personality and a complete disregard for human life. His ideas on what is acceptable if he can (genetically or psychologically) manipulate the subject into consent is sickening and some of it is quite explicitly described. Through Peat's eyes we see the image of an ecologically sound but morally corrupt state. Astra will have her work cut out for her trying to fix that mess.

Foyle also shows us the conflict from the site of Youth Action Collective, the main organization fighting with the Sec Gens. Their internal conflicts and the impact the huge loss of life has on their community is described in some detail. Military they are clearly inferior so they look for other ways to gain the upper hand. It's a good view into the mind of people desperate enough to fight impossible odds. While such a fight is not exactly rare in genre fiction, the way Foyle links this struggle with cultural expression and identity is very interesting. The movement goes well beyond resistance. It is a political part, art collective, provides community service and so forth. It reminded me a bit of how the Palestinian Hamas movement is organized, sans the religious extremism.

Each of these three strands of the story is pushed forward but with the exception of some of the more personal aspects of Astra's journey, none of them reach any kind of conclusion. While Astra's trip has shown us many interesting things, it is clear that the real resolution of the control conflict in the novel is to be found in Is-Land. Which is where I suspect we'll be going in the fourth volume of the series. In terms of structure it is probably not the strongest book in the series. It does continue the parallels with the current conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the region's history and culture. The Gaia theory inspired politics are slightly less prominent in the book but still very noticeable. It's a combination that continues to attract me. It will be interesting to see how Astra will juggle the competing demands on her time and attention in the next novel.

Book Details
Title: The Blood of the Hoopoe
Author: Naomi Foyle
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78206-922-5
First published: 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Death's End - Cixin Liu

Death's End is the concluding volume of a science fiction trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem. These novels have been translated from Chinese, and that alone makes them stand out. Translations into English are rare in science fiction. Translations that win awards - The Three-Body Problem won a Hugo Award - are even rarer. Slowly, more attention for science fiction from outside the anglophone sphere is emerging and this series certainly played a part in that. Death's End takes Liu's vision to extremes. It is a book with a scope grander than we have seen in the previous volumes and as such, a fitting conclusion to the series.

The threat from the Trisolarans has, at least for the moment, been neutralized. By finding a way to expose the position of their home world to the galaxy, Earth now has a powerful weapon of deterrence. It is, in a sense, back to the cold war. The Wallfacer project was not the only one humanity started to deal with the crisis however. In this age of deterrence, a young Chinese aerospace engineer wakes up after many decades of hibernation. Her knowledge of one of these programs upsets the carefully maintained balance between the two species. Soon, Earth plunges into another crisis. This one even more lethal than anything they have encountered before.

The translation is once again in the hands of Ken Liu. As far as I can tell he did a splendid job. Liu translated the first novel, before handing over the reigns to Joel Martinsen for the second book. They obviously compared notes because the English version appears seamless to me. Although many of the characters are Chinese, the story takes place on a global scale or even beyond. Liu only needs eleven footnotes in a 600 page book, to explain a few phrases where the context might escape the western reader.

The main character is the Chinese engineer Cheng Xin. She is born in the twenty-first century and lives pretty much through the entire period of the Trisolaran crisis. Cheng takes a decidedly different approach to dealing with the crisis than Luo Ji, the main character in The Dark Forest. Where he sets humanity on a ruthless path of mutually assured destruction, Cheng doesn't care for the responsibility to condemn whole species to death and decide over the fate of whole solar systems. Her compassion proves to be costly in a universe where everybody is out to destroy everybody else.

I must say the parallel Liu draws between society and his main characters annoyed me a bit in this novel. Society swings from 'masculine' values to 'feminine values' and back again. From bellicose and ruthless, to compassionate and passive, and back again. These qualifications will have feminists all over the world up in arms. The idea that humanity needs an utterly ruthless man to survive the crisis and that by not following the examples of Luo and Wade (another powerful figure in the story, and a man devoid of any sense of morality), our species condemns itself to extinction. Whether or not it is desirable to follow a tyrant in wartime is debatable but surely this theme could have been handled without making it into a gender issue.

In the previous novel, the Trisolarans imposed limits on human technological development. After the start of what Liu calls the deterrence age, these limits disappear and humanity once again progresses in great strides. Liu's cosmology becomes ever more complex. His fondness for playing with dimensions and perspectives is given free reign in the book, leading to a number of memorable scenes. Once again, some parts of the novel reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama and the Fountains of Paradise in particular) but there is also a bit of Poul Anderson in the book. Specifically his novel Tau Zero.

Although we follow Cheng for most of the novel, Liu inserts sweeping passages where he explains global developments. They are none too subtle for the most part. Humanity in Liu's vision moves as a whole. There is little room in the narrative for dissent or debate. When presented with irrefutable evidence (something not many people in the west seem to believe in these days), the Earth as a whole decides to follow the inevitable path. Liu breaks the show-don't-tell rule on a massive scale in this novel. If that bothers you as are a reader, this novel is clearly not for you. Personally it didn't bother me beyond the fact that humanity seems to behave a bit more rational than I would expect them to do.

Liu takes the story to the end of the universe and beyond. It is a dark journey, one that offers little hope for any of the creatures inhabiting it. There is just a glimmer at the very end though. While this universe may be doomed, from its ashes, a new one may arise. Since it is a worst case scenario, the salvation of the universe relies on many parties doing something completely selfish. Given all that has gone before, it is no more than the barest hint of light in the dark forest universe.

Liu's trilogy evolves into space opera on the largest possible canvas. It is a trilogy that will awe the reader with grand vistas of the universe. While not flawless, the series has already shown that it is more than capable of finding a global audience. This novel manages to raise the stakes to dizzying heights, and forms a worthy conclusion of the series. I suspect it will turn out to be a favourite for many readers. If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be the first book. It shows us a bit more of Chinese society and that adds to the story in my opinion. For the pure science fiction fan, Death's End is probably more appealing. I do hope that the success of this series has opened the door a bit further for other translations. If anything, these novels show that there is a wealth of material to discover beyond what is written in English.

Book Details
Title: Death's End
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 604
Year: 2016
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-765-7710-4
First published: 2010

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Fiends of Nightmaria - Steven Erikson

The Fiends of Nightmaria is the sixth instalment in Steven Erikson's Bauchelain and Korbal Broach series of novellas. These two necromancers  appear as minor figures in both Erikson's and Esslemont's Malazan novels. As far as I know, there is no US edition of this novella yet. I ordered the PS Publishing edition, which is expensive but also beautifully illustrated. Erikson has several more of these novellas planned and I for one, can't wait to find out where he is taking it. That being said, this novella is not the strongest in the series.

Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese have reached the kingdom of Farrog. Tired of travelling, Bauchelain usurps the throne and appoints Korbal Broach his Grand Bishop. Soon their tyrannical rule is making itself felt throughout the kingdom. The new monarch is facing more than a few problems however, his enemies are still in pursuit, the local population is about to rebel and tensions are rising between Farrog and the nearby kingdom of Nightmaria. Claiming the throne is easier than holding on to it.

Most of the novella takes place in a single night in which Bauchelain's enemies converge (this is a Steven Erikson book after all) on his position. Erikson covers three groups of enemies and Bauchelain himself in barely a hundred pages. It makes things a bit chaotic in the novella. I almost never get this feeling when reading Erikson but I would almost say it feels rushed. This feeling was not helped by the fact that two of the groups consisted of powerful but idiotic characters. While entertaining, these groups seemed to serve almost the same purpose in the story. One provides a link to the pervious novellas but that is about as far as the difference goes.

Throughout these novellas Erikson has explored various forms of tyranny. In this novella he casts his eye on the external enemy. What better way to distract the populations from hardship, economic problems, internal power struggles, discontent and oppression than to focus on an external threat. If one doesn't exist, well you just create one. Currently a masterclass in using this principle to stay in power is being given by Vladimir Putin. He seems to be getting away with it too.

Bauchelain, it turns out, is not quite as good at it. He seriously underestimates his chosen foe. He picks an obvious candidate. The lizard like people of Nightmaria are isolationists, suspicious of outsiders in the extreme and by their scaly skin alone can easily be cast as inhuman. The main target of Eirkson's satire is very dark in this novella but also works very well. Bauchelain's cynical views on tyranny contrasts nicely with the Nightmairian ambassador's mild amusement at his aggression and the general's blind confidence in victory.

There is the usual banter in The Fiends of Nightmaria, but looking at it thematically, this one is definitely the darkest of the bunch. As such, I didn't come away from it with the same amused feeling I had after reading The Healthy Dead or Crack'd Pot Trail, probably my favourites in the series. It is nevertheless an interesting addition to the series. Since it, typically for the necromancers, ends with our heroes on the run, I'll keep an eye out for the next novella to see what sorts of trouble they will find themselves in next.

Book Details
Title: The Fiends of Nightmaria
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 99
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-786360-10-6
First published: 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho - Auke Hulst

Earlier this year the inaugural Harland Award for novels was awarded to the novel Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho by Auke Hulst. The Harland Award for fantastic (read F, SF and H) short fiction has been around since 1976 and now they have expanded to longer works. It really is named award. I can't get over the irony of using the English word for an 'award' instead of the perfectly adequate Dutch word 'prijs'  when celebrating the best fantastic novel published in the Dutch language. But never mind that, let's move on to the book.

Liberally translated the title means something like 'Sweet Dreams, Johnny Idaho.' It's the first novel I've read by Hulst. From what I have seen of him, he is an author who doesn't seem to be bothered by labels like literary and genre. His inspiration is drawn from a number of classic works of literature - Melville's Moby Dick is often referenced - but also from science fiction greats such as Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut. The novel uses elements of both, fusing it into a story that can be approached from either direction, although it is probably best to leave literary conventions behind completely.

After the financial meltdown of 2008 and the years of government involvement, regulation and other hardships, the financial world has decided to try a new approach. Somewhere in one of the world's oceans an archipelago arises. A place governed by corporate principles, where society is stratified by economic success. It is a place where people live to work and consume, and where Big Brother makes sure that is what you do. The story follows three people drawn to this capitalist paradise. Dutch investment banker Willem Gerson, promising, young, Japanese researcher Hatsu Hamada and traumatized, American teenager Johnny Idaho all have their own reasons for coming to the Archipelago. Although their economic status separates them, their lives are inexorably pulled together.

Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho is a full blown dystopia. In the book we are shown the relentless pressure to perform, to rake in the big bucks, to consume and to do all of it within the contracts the archipelago offers. All of it is overseen by a nasty police force and ever present electronic surveillance. Society shows no coherency beyond economic status. It is a multinational group of people drawn together by greed and desperation and kept in check by the self-imposed laws of capitalism.The archipelago is tailor-made to suit the needs of corporate entities rather than people.  It is, in other words, a nightmare beyond what Orwell imagined in his 1984. A book that clearly inspired Hulst.

It is not surprising then, that the characters spend most of their time being completely miserable. They cover the full spectrum from pitiful to pathetic. In true dystopian style this novel is a very depressing read. I've always considered it a failing of Dutch literature in general that it cannot seem to discuss the human condition with even the slightest hint of optimism. The Dutch literary canon is a parade of losers, anti-heroes and tortured souls that, after being forced to read a bunch of them in school, made me wary to pick up more than one or two a year. I have to admit that in this case it is fitting. Mirroring their dismal environment, the characters explore greed, jealousy, revenge, guilt and, perhaps above all, mortality.

One other striking feature of the novel is the way it depicts loneliness. All three characters are intensely lonely. Social interactions are all business, there doesn't seem to be any room for something as intrinsically human as friendship or love. Everything is reduced to business or entertainment. Sometimes it is even hard to tell which is which. The characters are always connected to the rest of society, but more connections and more surveillance seems to result in more superficial contact. Human interaction is completely based on physical rather than emotional needs.

There's quite a bit of social commentary in the novel. Corporate greed is perhaps the most obvious one. On the Archipelago the mindset that caused the system to crash in 2008 is still thriving. The winners of this event are the ones that managed to push the losses and responsibility to someone else rather than the ones with a stronger sense of morality. Hulst has a few things to say about how modern means of communication, surveillance and data storage is changing the way people interact. A third one is the way the Archipelago deals with refugees. They allow a number of them in to keep wages low.

The language Hulst uses is something one does not come across often in Dutch genre novels. Most of them tend to be more focused on plot and storytelling. Prose is functional but rarely beautiful. Hulst approaches it differently. There is a lot of attention to descriptions, metaphor and internal monologue. Hulst emphasizes parallels between the situation of the Archipelago and the state of mind of his characters. One of the most obvious examples of this is the volcanic ash cloud that hangs over the islands. It nicely mirrors how Gerson's success in business turns to ashes in his mouth in the face of his imminent death for instance. Dialogue is used as an expression of loneliness and the superficial contacts the characters have with other people. Rarely do the characters have very deep conversations. If they do, suspicion and misdirection are often part of these conversations. Another interesting thing is how Johnny Idaho is telling his own story whereas Hulst uses a more standard third person narrative for the other two main characters.

In the end, Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho is a very well written novel but also a very depressing read. Not just because of the miserable lives of the characters but also because the near future setting is so frighteningly plausible. While Hulst's corporate dystopia might not be the most original, the execution is very good indeed. Of course it is too 'literate' to market as science fiction and probably too genre to do well among the more science-fiction-can't-be-literature crowd. If you consider yourself not to be stuck on either side of the genre/ literature divide you could do worse than try this novel though. I was a bit doubtful when I picked it up, but it turned out to be well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho
Author: Auke Hulst
Publisher: Ambo|Anthos
Pages: 383
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-414-2483-9
First published: 2015

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Infomocracy - Malka Older

Infomocracy is the début novel of Malka Older. It has to be said, the timing of this book, right in the middle of a hotly contested US presidential campaign, is impeccable. This book is a fine example of the axiom that science fiction is always about the time it is written in. It's also a book that fits right into's profile of politically progressive stories. Charged as the genre currently is with social and political debates, this novel cannot fail to find an audience. Whether or not the novel, like some of the candidates, survives much beyond the elections remains to be seen. I thought it was a very interesting read but certainly not a flawless book.

The world's political system has undergone a radical change. In a bid to stamp out warfare between states, a new form of democracy has been introduced in vast areas of the globe. Each government now rules over approximately 100,000 people, who get to set their policies and create their laws as they see fit. Some parties are local, others contest in many of these centenals. The system is made possible by the strictly neutral search-engine Information. Its output is universally available and can keep people informed of global developments almost instantly. Every ten years worldwide elections are held and one such event is rapidly approaching. The big prize is a super majority of centenals that gives the winner a powerful position in global politics. In the past two cycles, a party called Heritage has won the super majority. A third win in a row would entrench them even further in a position of power. Not everybody is keen on this idea. If the elections cannot produce the desired result by democratic means, why, it just needs a little push in the right direction.

The story is seen through the eyes of a number of main characters. Mishima works for Information and is constantly looking into attempts to illegally manipulate the system. Ken is unofficially campaigning for Policy1st, a party that believes political parties should be policy driven, instead of motivated by religious, nationalistic or corporate motives. A third character, Domaine, sees the elections as another form of oppression, a system that only appears to give its citizens freedom and must therefore be overthrown. All three run into hints that someone is trying to seize power using the elections.

This book could quite easily have turned into a political manifesto. The system Older describes is pretty much the opposite of what we see happening around the globe. To be able to wield influence on a global scale all sorts of international treaties and structures arise, attempting to do what microdemocracy in the novel seems to have achieved. From the European Union to huge free trade agreements, in politics every area seems to be scaling up. And resistance against this development is mounting. Brexit, the stalling of the TTIP negotiations, Donald Trump's railing against TTP and other trade agreements, the seemingly endless struggle to achieve any form of meaningful global action on environmental issues, the list is endless. Many people seem to think that if they can only decide for themselves, everything will be better.

Whether or not that is true is debatable of course. Many politicians feel it is necessary to take refuge in wishful thinking, racism, fearmongering and even outright lies to sell this particular message, which in itself ought to be enough to make people suspicious. Older's vision is interesting but also very vulnerable. It completely depends on instant access to information. Imagine a city divided into dozens of centenals, where each is allowed to set its own rule. On one street smoking would be allowed, one block further down the road it might be illegal. How do you tell without instant information? Knock out your connection and you'd be hopelessly lost, breaking laws left, right and centre without even noticing. Even if you have a connection, information can be manipulated, slanted or simply omitted. Add to that human tendencies like confirmation bias and you have an unstable system indeed. No information, it seems, is neutral and navigating what Information has to offer takes serious talent.

It is in the handling of information where the novel shines. Older shows us how information can be used to manipulate public opinion, how analysis of huge datasets can give you a crucial advantage and how pressuring certain tipping points can completely change the global picture. The kind of data and analytic power Information has access to is a spin-doctor's wet dream. The way Older handles these themes is bound to make the reader think about where their information comes from and how it shapes their opinions and behaviour. It also makes some scary points about the people who have access to such treasure troves of information. The Googles and Facebooks of this world are quite aware of their potential power.

All of this does result in a rather dense narrative. It took me a while to figure out how this microdemocracy works for instance. There is a strange contrast in the opening chapters of the novel. Older's style is to use relatively short chapters with very frequent switches in point of view, giving it the impression of a fast pace. Nevertheless the novel takes a while to get going and Older tests the patience of her readers beyond what some of them will be willing to invest in a book. I can only say persevere and it will pay off. What I thought more problematic about the book is the character development. Mishima, Ken and Domaine are political positions as much as characters. Their interactions and the internal monologues we are privy to are almost entirely taken up by viewing the political situation from their point of view. They are completely absorbed in their work, all their social interactions are with colleagues or voters and we get absolutely no back story on any of them. Add to that the fact that, apart form a few hints in the final chapter, their positions don't really change throughout the novel and you end up with fairly two-dimensional characters.

Infomocracy is clearly a big idea novel. If it wasn't set a century or so from now it might be called a political thriller. It leans very heavily on debate about the political system and the parallels with current events in our own time. In that respect, I think it is a very successful book. I mentioned but a few of the political topics that are discussed in this novel. It could be an almost endless source of debate going over all the politics that is worked into it. Looking at the execution however, there is clearly room for improvement. Still, a novel that hits on so many ongoing political debates as this one, is more than worth your attention. I'd say read it. Preferably before the US presidential elections in November.

Book Details
Title: Infomocracy
Author: Malka Older
Pages: 380
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-07653-8515-4
First published: 2016

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Necessity - Jo Walton

Time travel, robots, Olympian gods and Plato's Republic, how do you manage to stuff those elements into one coherent story. In Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy she  attempts just that. The first two novels, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, both published in 2015, turned out to be some of the most unusual works of speculative fiction I've read in ages. Necessity, the third book, took a bit longer to write and contains the conclusion of a story that takes us from Iron Age Greece to a far future exoplanet. In many ways, it is just as fascinating as the previous two volumes but you also get the feeling Walton nearly tripped over the implications of time travel in this book. Even the gods have trouble keeping things straight it would seem.

Forty years ago the cities were moved from Iron Age Greece to a planet circling a distant sun. All of the masters have died of old age by now and the children are very old men and women. When the inevitable happens and Apollo's mortal body gives out, he returns to his divine self only to find his sister Athena missing. He soon finds out that her curiosity has driven her to explore the nature of the universe beyond the bounds of time, a thing expressly forbidden by their father Zeus. A desperate search for Athena is about to begin. On the mortal plane another potentially dangerous development is taking place. A space ship has entered orbit around the planet and it is carrying humans. The Just Cities are about to rejoin the wider human society.

Since mortals can't really influence the labours of the gods that much, you'd think they would be more concerned with the end of their isolation. Most of the book deals with Athena's antics and theie consequences however. There is quite a bit of Ancient Greek cosmology and the nature of the gods. Subjects the ancient Greeks seem to have disagreed on quite a bit themselves. The gods exist out of time but can visit it if they want to. They are not bound to any period in history but can visit each moment only once. It is quite possible that a god meets a mortal who have already met them before in their experience but the god in question still has to visit that particular point in time. When this happens, the gods feel the pull of necessity. An urge to make the moment in time they just visited come about by performing a task earlier in time. Encounters like these wreak havoc on the timeline in the story and only with great difficulty has Walton managed to make something comprehensible out of it. It is another fine example of why time travel is not one of my favourite tropes. It just keeps tying itself in knots.

The gods get to have their fun in this novel but first contact seems to be a very muted affair. After a lifetime of trying to make Plato's republic a reality, the community on the planet has drifted quite far from the human main stream. Language is the first obstacle but not as it happens an insurmountable one. Although you can feel the tension among the characters in the book, they are prepared for this eventuality and it is dealt with, with a minimum lack of fuss. I would almost say that a stoic couldn't have done it better.The conclusion of the series feels like a bit of an anti-climax but that may have more to do with me not liking the other main subject of the novel that much.

The one main character that was with us for all three novels, Apollo, is also not quite as interesting as in the previous two novels. In those books Walton uses him to explore issues like consent and sexism, but also loss and sacrifice. In this novel he is done learning and mostly broods over how his new-found knowledge fits into his wider view of the universe. By regaining godhood he has lost some of his humanity, making him a more bland character than he was in previous novels.

All of that doesn't sound very positive, but there are more than a few things to enjoy in the book too. Walton again included numerous references to history and art in the novel. She discusses the importance of art partly through the point of view of the robot Crocus, who has managed to become quite a philosopher and artist in the years since we've last encountered him. Walton deftly avoids making him want to be human. Crocus is striving for excellence, not humanity and is enough of a thinker not to confuse the two. In fact, robots - not distracted by the sexuality Plato so deeply misunderstood - may be much more suitable to achieve the Platonic ideal than humans are.

On the whole, I don't think Walton finishes the trilogy as strong as she starts it. It is not a book that adds that much to her vision of Plato's republic. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit but not as much as the previous two volumes. As a whole, the trilogy is a work to remember though. Walton takes on complex subjects and ideas in these books and yet manages to keep them very accessible. I would not be surprised to see a few people pick up some of Plato's works (note that Walton does not recommend starting with The Republic). Walton pushes herself in these books but she also pushes speculative fiction as a whole in a new direction. There are not many authors that can claim to have done that. Maybe she falters slightly on the home stretch but it is still a noteworthy work of fiction. I recommend you read it.

Book Details
Title: Necessity
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 331
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7902-3
First published: 2016