SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature


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


The magic didn’t work for me – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally published: January 26, 2016,
publisher: Tor Books, 320 pp. hardcover

If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2.  Continue reading


What makes an AI human? – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette UK company, 2016, 378 pp. e-book. Kindle edition – Oct. 20, 2016. Hardcover edition: Hardcover – Jan 31, 2017

This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms.  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


The Pigoons are going to get you – MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

Man Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood is famous, celebrated, much awarded, and justly so. One comes to expect that everything she writes will be of superior quality. This particular set of Social Science-Fiction novels features a cleverly constructed, very dark satire of the present day world. It’s Sci-Fi that seems disturbingly plausible and not so far in the future. Global outbreaks of viral diseases? Generically engineered plants and meat? Dominance and manipulation by giant agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations? Mass use of performance-enhancing drugs? Large-scale destruction of the natural environment? Seems like that’s the way of the world already.

I read all three, in the right order, and in quick succession. But while the dystopia she describes is interesting and thought provoking, unfortunately for me it began to drag a bit by book 2, and was quite disappointing by book 3. It felt like The Lord of the Rings: – they travel, they fight, they live somewhere for a bit, they travel some more, and so on.

Continue reading