Asher on Holidays

This one’s for Will, who came up with the brilliant idea of combining the themes of our 2020 most popular/most liked posts: my review of Neal Asher’s The Line of Polity and Piotrek’s report from his Sicilian Vacation. So I took my trusty Asher with me, and here we are :D. Don’t worry, I will write a proper review of The Technician in due time 😉

Asher’s book and a glass of white wine at the sunset by the lake Rerewhakaaitu… A glorious combination 😀

The lake above lies near a still active volcano; its shores are made of pumice and sand, and the waters cover chunks of obsidian. Bhind us by the lake is Tarawera – the volcano responsible for the destruction of a natural wonder called Pink and White Terraces in the late 19th century. I suspect the obsidian and pumice present in the lake might be remnants of that historical eruption, which dramatically altered the entire landscape around the volcano.

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Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

 Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: Aurora

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 466

Series: –

I know, I know, two KSR reviews in a row – but this one was a promise! 😀

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, while it had not received any awards and is not as well-known as his other books, notably 2312 and Martian trilogy, in my opinion remains one of the most important SF novels of our early 21st century. Engaging in a scientifically sound mind experiment and imagining a workable model of a generational starship, Aurora radically – and emphatically – dispels any illusions we could have harboured regarding the fate of humanity in the known universe. Contrary to the most books in KSR’s oeuvre, Aurora is not an optimistic novel; it shows, very clearly, that while humanity’s dream of interstellar travel might be possible, and indeed we’re getting close to reaching Mars, that other dream – of finding an Earth analog which would be instantly or near-instantly habitable and at the same time devoid of life – must be ultimately seen for what it is: a pipe dream, a fantasy, an illusion that in our current man-made predicament causes more harm than good, turning our heads up to the stars instead down, to the planet we are actually responsible for; the only home we have. Allow me to present the crux of the problem in Robinson’s own words:

“Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard a peep from anywhere. It’s not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That’s the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It’s something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So, you know, Fermi’s paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. So that’s my answer to the paradox. You can call it Euan’s Answer.” (p. 179)

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Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: The Ministry for the Future

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 576

Ola is somewhere in the woods, counting on me posting something this week, so I’m motivated to actually deliver on my resolution to write more in 2021 😉 There are some reviews I planned for weeks, like one of the excellent Lovecraft Country, but that can wait, as I just finished reading something big and quite popular around here. The Ministry for the Future is the latest brick by Kim Stanley Robinson, a serious and prolific author who seems to start with choosing a specific topic and develop his characters and plot from there. It might be a neolithic society he so plausibly depicts in Shaman, or humanity reimagining itself to withstand the climate change – in this one. It was quite favourably reviewed by Andreas and Bart, and so I decided to get it from Book Depository, in what might be my last order there, as they had to pause sending books here due to Brexit.

Shaman wasn’t the most thrilling of novels I’ve ever read. It was rather slow, had a limited cast of characters and a plot to fit the scale of small hunter gatherer societies at the dawn of humanity. But it was amazing! A very rewarding book, immersing the reader in the most ancient history of our species. Was it a reconstruction? No, we will never be able to fully learn how the culture was born, what these people thought and believed in. But this is as close as we can come to it right now, a very believable speculation. And, ultimately, stuff happens, this really is a novel. I’m a patient reader, I loved it!

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The Worst of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… And here we’ll focus on the worst 😉 Or, to be more fair, just on the most disappointing for us personally, for as you will see, most of the works mentioned below enjoyed quite a lot of acclaim and following.

To be true to our title, we should probably start and stop this post at COVID-19, the wellspring of our woes (though there are a few hopeful signs along the way, from the evidence of effective and efficient trust-based cooperation above the national level to the human-caused limitation of greenhouse gases emissions). But as this is predominantly a book blog, with a small but significant addition of comics, TV series and movies, we feel we need to elaborate a bit and avoid easy finger-pointing.

As in the previous summary post, we wanted to divide our choices into a few categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Comics, TV Series; but as Non-fiction this year proved to be a major hit without any misses (YAY!), we’ll omit this category.

Ola’s Worst of 2020 in Fiction

Here the choices are easy, at least for me – though for many might seem quite controversial, as some of these books seem to have become fan favorites ;). But what can I say? By now you really shouldn’t be surprised by any of this 😛 So without further ado, here it is:

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

That’s the only book on this list that I wrote a review of; I felt this instant favorite of the bookish community deserved a critique, and whether I achieved the goal of making it measured and not just scathing, it’s for you to judge. So let me just quote the crux of my review here:

Nanking Massacre was a truly horrible event, an atrocity for which there can be no excuse. The world should learn more about it, so that it stops being a footnote in history books. But using it in a fantasy book as a plot device designed to further the main character’s evolution into a vessel for a demonic/demigod entity and as a rationale for her own acts of genocide seems beyond bad taste.

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The Best Of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

It’s becoming a tradition that we can’t fit all we want to write about in our end-year post, and again we had to divide it into two. Before Christmas we wrote about the blog and stats, now we want to share our favourite – and least favourite – books and shows, consumed in this fateful year.

Ola: Well, say what you want, but for me 2020 turned out to be a good time for reading ;). As last year, I decided to divide my best reads into three categories, Fiction, Non-fiction, and Comics. With so many books read, my The Best Of criteria had to be very harsh, so below are the best of the best of the best, which means a very impactful, thought-provoking and delightful read, as well as the even rarer 10/10 rating :).

Ola’s Best of 2020 in Fiction

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

This was truly one of the very best reads of 2020 and one of the very best SF reads ever. Stephenson’s love letter to Western philosophy and science is pure perfection, and his decision to wrap it into a hero’s journey through a world as like and as unlike our own was a masterstroke, allowing the readers an incredibly immersive experience. The prose is dense, ambitious, unforgiving, but given a chance it shines with amazing clarity and emotion. I owe big thanks to Bart, who recommended Anathem to me; Stepehenson’s Seveneves is good, especially the first part dealing with orbital mechanics, and would’ve been even better if the last part didn’t exist, but Anathem is a masterpiece, clear and simple. If you haven’t yet, read it!

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (2020)

The grand finale of the critically acclaimed Cromwell trilogy doesn’t disappoint. It may be more meandering and more sentimental than the naked blade of Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s to be expected since it deals with the final years of Thomas Cromwell, whose tragic history is inextricably linked with that of Henry VIII. A historical novel with grand ambitions, a deep psychological portrayal of human vices and virtues, of naked ambition, egotism and the pitfalls of power, The Mirror & the Light is astonishingly modern, significant novel; a mark of true classic, its contents equally relevant in times of Henry VIII and our own.

Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

I’ve written all I could about this quirky, thought-provoking read. I loved Lee’s bold, utterly brilliant mashup of Korean mythology and political anti-utopia clad in military SF accoutrements and wrapped up in a stolen identity mystery happening in the middle of a galactic war. Ninefox Gambit is wonderfully ambitious, broad in scope, and lyrical. I’ve read the remaining two books in the trilogy, but sadly, their quality seemed to be deteriorating with each installment, and by the end turned into a political treatise focused on gender issues while what I was expecting was an all-out AI revolution ;).

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman (2005)

The second installment in the Saxon Stories series, popularized by the Netflix’s TV series Last Kingdom (very good, actually, though I haven’t seen it past season 1 as I want to read the books first ;)) is impeccably written, heart-rending, thoroughly researched, and simply riveting. The first book is good; but only in The Pale Horseman Cornwell achieves the psychological and societal depth to make his work outstanding. Many thanks to Sarah, who recommended this series to me. A review will come one day, I promise 😉

Daniel Polansky, The Seventh Perfection (2020)

I was really surprised by this little novella; its impact on me was far bigger than I’d expected judging by its length and the misleadingly obfuscating beginning. But this tiny bit of a book is simply amazing, turning midpoint from a slightly generic fantasy into a Kafkian treatise on the nature and limits of power. I absolutely adored every aspect of it, from the stunningly apt use of the second person perspective to the impeccably structured journey – inward and outward – of the protagonist.

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