SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature


Six rules for writing about AI set out at Worldcon 75

Quote from the film, Ex Machina.

AI, Artificial Intelligence, is the one element that many SF writers like to work into their stories, particularly robot-human interactions. The bad news is that this particular element is probably the hardest to get right and the furthest away from becoming reality. On the third day of Worldcon 75, which ended last week, authors Anthony Eichenlaub and S.B Divya, and research scientist and software engineer Greg Hullender, formerly of Amazon and Microsoft, poured icy cold water on the notion that human-like robots will populate the world any time soon. Continue reading


Readers set the critics right at Worldcon 75

On day 2 of Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, I finally got to have a word with one of the “insider” attendees, which provided me with more of an eye-opener than the presenter himself had done. As part of a session on Chinese Science Fiction (SF), Eero Suoranta (University of Helsinki, Finland) presented his Ph.D. Study, The Inadequacy of Enlightenment Rationality in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. This was just after Prof. Mingwei Song had put forth his compelling arguments about making “the invisible” part of the real world. Continue reading


Mental-floss on a grand scale – Death’s End by Cixin Liu

It has been said that many authors seems to be unable to grasp or describe how big outer space is. So it takes a bold and visionary Science Fiction (SF) writer – and I mean “visionary” in the sense of being able to come up with a vision of a setting in outer space – to describe space in both scientifically acceptable and literarily pleasing ways. Some writers gloss over the whole thing – it’s just “big”, “enormous”, or “there”. Others try to think beyond the usual ways of describing it. So, how big is it? And does LIU Cixin get it right in his sweeping epic of a space opera novel, Death’s End? Continue reading


Weird and funny – The Rapture of the Nerds by Doctorow & Stross

Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers often present original concepts in their novels, but Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross not only invented new ideas for The Rapture of the Nerds, but an entire new lexicon. It is missing a glossary, but if you’re not the kind of reader who immediately needs to make sense of a book, then you can just let all those un-English words and speculative notions roll over you, and eventually something will come out in the wash. I had to read it three times to get the gist of it, but a couple of new words stuck in my head. One was “meatsuit” – the bodies that humans are in: as much as one would like information and even personalities to be in code and uploaded to the Cloud somewhere, we all live in meatsuits and if we leave the meatsuit we die. At least, that is what one would suppose. Continue reading


Depicted like a painting – The One-Eyed Man by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

You know the colour “octarine”? It’s the colour of magic, visible only to magicians and cats, a sparkly, glowing combination of yellowy-green and purple. I thought of octarine and the way it became a stand-out feature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Fantasy novels when I was visualizing the strange brown-purple-grey world, “Stittara”, that L.E. Modesitt, Jr., invented for his novel The One-Eyed Man.

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Finnish Weird at its best – Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo

"Troll

Troll – A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo; Copyright 2000 by Johanna Sinisalo; English translation copyright by Herbert Lomas, 2003; 278 pp., paperback

ABOUT TROLLS –There is a whole body of memes about trolls. There are cute troll dolls, like in the 2016 animated movie, Trolls, and the more “realistic” trolls, hairy, ferocious, living in forests, and confined by the emissions of electricity pylons, that feature in the 2010 Norwegian “found footage” film Trollhunter. For the Trollhunter film’s final scene, a clip of former Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg speaking about an oil field outside Norway called the “Troll Field”, was edited to create the appearance of him admitting to the existence of trolls.”

Madam, I’m afraid he’s come down with a bad case of Trolls

If you’ve never imagined that trolls are an actual “thing” to people in Scandinavian countries, read this. Honest to Pete, you will come to believe this troll is as real as your dog or, more disconcertingly, your husband or wife. It is haunting, marvellous, and really refreshingly different, and confronts the reader with questions about the nature of love and alienation. It is no fairy-tale, nor is it a fantasy, though it is about a troll. A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, classified somewhere between a smart animal and a cave-dwelling humanoid. Despite today’s globalized world of connected technologies and electronic media, there are ancient folkloric beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland, for instance. Surveys show that more than half the nation believes in elves and “hidden people”, elf-like “Huldufólk” who live amongst the lava rocks, or at least don’t deny their existence since it is considered bad luck to do so.

Similarly, there are people in Finland who believe that trolls are real – or just want to believe trolls are real. Every country in the world has its mythical beings, and so long as people have story-telling and imagination, that will continue, helped along by mass communication and imaging methods. The Finns, in particular, have trolls. Continue reading


Who’s up for some Surrealist warfare? The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville

China Miéville’s novels lend themselves to illustration, as his legions of fans have demonstrated. This excellent collage is by the (nameless) author of the French Sci-Fi blog, avant-critique. The artist did not think that the graphics in the novel were adequate to reflect the tone.

China Miéville’s novels lend themselves to illustration, as his legions of fans have demonstrated. This imaginative collage is by the (nameless) author of the French Sci-Fi blog, avant-critique. The artist did not think that the graphics in the novel were adequate to reflect the tone.

To give some background on this peculiar novella, The Last Days of New Paris, consider this: No adult, dedicated Science Fiction (SF) novel has ever won the Man Booker prize for literature. It has been vehemently debated that the Man Booker Prize judges, like the judges of other high-profile, establishment literary awards, shy away from submissions from SF writers, because, firstly, SF is viewed as “low-brow” youth culture writing, being frequently confused with Fantasy writing. Secondly, SF is seen as too obscure or leading-edge, and thirdly, they presuppose that in order to understand SF, readers have to have read a lot of it or have specialized knowledge of technology or science, limiting its appeal.

Practically speaking, SF is often hard to read and appreciate because of futuristic subjects and the introduction of new concepts that authors have to create new words or languages for. (For instance Klingon and Na’vi.) Both authors and readers need tremendous powers of imagination. China Miéville has invented new words and languages for many of his mind-boggling SF works, and in The Last Days of New Paris, he does it again. Reading it made me realize that I simply do not know enough about the SF genre. It was impossible for me to judge it one way or another. A thumbs up or down was out of the question. Why? Because, apart from producing a doozy of an SF adventure, he turns many SF conventions on their heads in this book. It isn’t a Man Booker contender, for the reasons listed above, but is sure is a candidate for every SF literature award out there. Continue reading