The Venus Project

To start with, note that this is a novel heavily inspired by the real-life Venus Project non-profit organization associated with Jacque Fresco, which might be confusing. What I mean by “The Venus Project” here is the English translation of a debut Turkish sci fi novel from Ilker Korkutlar.

Cover of the English edition of The Venus Project by Ilker Korkutlar
Image courtesy Portakal Kitab

As a novel, The Venus Project is amateur and flawed. There’s simply no beating around the bush there. I nearly went on about those flaws at length, but I decided that would be unasked for and unkind. The truth of the matter is, despite all of its problems, I still had a pretty good time (mostly). It’s not a great novel, or even a competent one, but it’s bonkers and different.

There’s a certain class of English language genre author that has developed a steady fan following over the years. Each book they produce panders more and more to that following, rehashing proven formulas and tropes, further insulating their writing and their fans from everything else. For a reader outside of the target demographic, the problem isn’t that they “just don’t get it.” The problem is that there isn’t anything to fail to get—there’s no “there” there. It’s a reading experience that’s bland at its best and insufferable at its worst. It’s the book equivalent of a Marvel movie.

I will take a flawed, amateur novel experience over a Marvel movie book any day of the week. Bring on the crackpot conspiracy theories! Tell me all about graphene! Yes, bees are pretty cool! As long as you’re not advocating for violence or genocide, I’m here for it!

A Desolation Called Peace

This was another pick for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club, one of the few times we decided on a sequel. I touched on the first book, A Memory Called Empire, in my most recent GoodReads Roundup post. I wish I’d found the time to write a more in-depth review, but so it goes.

Cover of A Desolation Called Peace
Image courtesy Tor

Desolation follows fast on the heels of  MemoryVery fast. Memory focused on intrigue and the politics of empire and national sovereignty; Desolation takes that conflict and then throws it into a first contact scenario. Considering how much of a plot point the alien threat ended up being in Memory, part of me suspects that they started out as one single volume. If this is indeed the case, then I think the surgical separation went well. Memory had a satisfying, clearly demarcated ending. I would have been perfectly satisfied if I never got around to reading Desolation.

But I still loved A Desolation Called Peace.

Desolation takes our ambassador Mahit, freshly returned from the events of Memory, and throws her into acting as a negotiator and xenolinguist alongside her former cultural liaison, friend, and maybe-lover. The alien threat, meanwhile, is a good ol’ fashioned hivemind with an incomprehensible spoken language so hideous it induces vomiting. As if that weren’t enough, tensions are high at Mahit’s home station and she might not be welcome back. Like Memory, there is still plenty of casual bisexuality, intrigue, and lesbians.

Martine left herself an opening in the end of Desolation. Several openings. Maybe that’s job security on her part, or a cash grab on the part of her publisher. I choose to see them as a gift to the reader. Sometimes the vast imaginary potential of a story is better than any follow up.

Fiasco

My third Stanislaw Lem book comes by way of a gift-recommendation from a friend, possibly after he noticed The Cyberiad on my book pile last October.

Cover of Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem
Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin

Calling Fiasco “relentlessly pessimistic” is maybe a bit harsh, but only a bit. It’s a Stanislaw Lem novel, after all. Sometimes I want to talk about a book as soon as I finish it—I think most times I do—but this was a case where I re-read the last paragraph a few times, closed the book, and sat quietly for a while. I appreciate when a book makes me do that.

I think in the end, all I can say is that Fiasco was a more invigorating “first contact” take than Axiom’s End, which I read back in March and which is total garbage. Fiasco was also an unintentionally interesting choice to read right before another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick on the first contact train, A Desolation Called Peace. 

The Sea of Tranquility

The good book/bad book ratio for Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club has been a little wonky as of late. I insinuated a lot of very not-nice things about You Sexy Thing earlier; a couple books before that was Moira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep. We don’t usually get two stinkers in such close company (I don’t think?).

Cover of The Sea of Tranquility y
Image courtesy Knopf

Once bitten, twice shy, so I went into Sea of Tranquility  with no small amount of trepidation. I loved Station Eleven so now the stakes were higher. Would Mandel stick this landing? Or would this book suck and thereby lead to retroactive mixed feelings about a book I loved? (I also want to say that I’m glad I read Station Eleven before a devastating flu-like pandemic happened.)

Good news everybody! It didn’t suck!  There is so much in Sea of Tranquility to make it sci-fi, but as with what I think is the best kind of sci-fi, the point isn’t “story for the sake of cool sci fi ideas” but “using sci-fi ideas to tell an interesting story.” The entire story hinges on 1) a very pernicious and annoying pop philosophy “problem” and 2) time travel, but neither of those are really what the story is about. A lesser author would have exhausted the reader with their preferred solution to The Problem, or at least a detailed explanation of The Problem and its ramifications, while Mandel cuts through the Gordian knot of pontificating by telling a story that arises from The Problem but leaving any specific philosophizing or moralizing out of it.

Stöld

Stöld was another pick from the neighborhood book club, which I joined in order meet my neighbors and to ensure some kind of minimum Swedish reading level in my annual book consumption (25% I decided was a good, if arbitrary, goal).

Stöld by Ann-Helen Laestadius
Image courtesy Romanus & Selling

Swedish book club stayed on brand for this one: rather grim reading (animal cruelty and hate crimes) and literally dark, set as it is in the north of Sweden, largely during the winter. I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly hyped for this selection, but in the end I came out enjoying it, or at least not angry that I read it.

Stöld focuses on Elsa, a young Sami reindeer herder, and her struggle to carve out a space for herself among Samis and Swedes alike. This struggle is centered in one particular conflict: that with the book’s antagonist, Robert Isakson. Isakson’s harassment of Elsa in particular and the Sami community at large is the arena where most of the story plays out and whence the smaller conflicts arise. Is it worth it for Samis to try to turn to the local police for protection? Should they take matters into their own hands? What kind of relationship should they try to have with Swedes? Differences of opinions here underscore smaller, gender-based conflicts Elsa has with her own community, one that expects her to eventually become a housewife when she loves nothing more than being out with the reindeer.

The book fell down for me in narrative execution. There are small things Laestadius does that are often used in other genres as tricks to build towards certain kind of plot twists or reveals—that Isakson is actually a red herring of a suspect, or that a key death in Elsa’s social group was a murder, or the result of criminal negligence, rather than a suicide—but everything is played straight. The bad guy is the bad guy. The suicide is a suicide. The result is that the story feels a bit hollow; a bit shallow. I suppose that’s my fault for coming into this with vague expectations of “Nordic noir, but with reindeer herders.”

Isakson in particular isn’t a particularly satisfying antagonist. Laestadius gestures weakly at how the same system that fails Elsa is failing Isakson as well, and at how toxic masculinity and small-town snobbery (where everyone knows every other family’s business, and has known it for generations) have robbed him of a fulfilling life. Nonetheless, it doesn’t account for the levels of sheer cruelty Isakson reaches, and as a result he feels a bit flat and mustache-twirling.

But what the story lacked, the writing made up for. Laestadius captured a mood very well, where the point wasn’t how predictable or tense the story would be (I appreciate that none of the chapters end on cliffhangers) but more to illustrate “here is a distillation of what this life is like, more or less.” And to that end, I understand why Stöld won Bonniers’ Book of the Year Award for 2021. I’ve certainly read worse, so I’m not mad.

Vänligen Bygg Ingen Berg

Remember Instapoetry?

My arch tone assumes that Instapoetry is dead, and I hope it is. No one seems to have written a thinkpiece about it since 2019—maybe I’m lucky.

My one-sentence review of Lina Arvidsson’s Vänligen bygg inga berg: Swedish Instapoetry about working as a supermarket cashier.

Cover of Vänligen bygg inga berg
Image courtesy Konsai Förlag

I read an interview with Arvidsson alongside one of the poems from the collection in a magazine who knows how many years ago now and thought, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” I never made any concerted effort to track it down, but the title stuck enough in my head that I recognized it in the library’s shelf of featured books. In other words, I was going into the collection more or less favorably inclined.

But what works as an individual poem quickly becomes monotonous in an entire collection. Part of the blame is maybe on me; maybe I should have read slower and tried to savor more. Maybe that would have stopped all of the untitled, open-verse, e. e. cummings-esque lowercase poems from bleeding into each other. At the same time, not giving any titles to your poems is also a choice, and not a useful one when someone wants to highlight a particular favorite. But I’ll do my best anyway, since it would be nice to end on a positive note.

Så kommer den natten när jag drömmer om dig.

Och det är inget hemskt du sitter vid
toaletterna
till höger om stämpelklockan
ryggen emot men jag ser direkt på håret att det
är du
Fanny
du hade alltid en perfekt page
När du vänder dig om ser jag: du håller på med
något en flaska
är det hallonsoda? rosa
ja
drinker vi ska ju dricka drinkar

Snacka lite
tjata lite

det är en förfest eller kanske är det det här
som är festen

man får väl inte dricka alkohol här? du ler
med hela ansiktet säger
det skiter jag faktiskt i

och när jag kramar dig är det verkligen du

jag hade aldrig fattat tidgare
men man behöver ju inte ben
eller fötter
närman är död

eller nacke
eller rygg
du har rätt

det gör man ju inte.

Flera gånger ska jag komma att drömma om dig
och det är aldrig hemskt
du ler alltid ja man skiner ju upp

snacka lite bara
komma på besök

The Burnout Society

Three things happened over Easter weekend. First, my sambo remarked offhandedly that PewdiePie has started making YouTube videos about philosophy. Then I tried to start reading Cat Rambo’s You Sexy Thing, but after about ten pages was ready to throw the book across the room in revulsion. Finally, a friend of mine was in town over the weekend and wanted to meet for dinner in the opposite end of Stockholm.

These disparate events led to me picking up the slim but impactful Tröthetssamhället: I had a sudden craving for scholarly rigorous philosophy and meaty content, and the small book fit neatly in my purse.

Cover of the Swedish translation of The Burnout Society
Image courtesy Ersatz

The Burnout Society (German original: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) had probably been on my TBR for a year and a half by the time I saw it on the shelves at Söderbokhandeln in February. Han outlines his points in clear, direct language so it goes down smooth.

There’s not a whole lot in this essay that’s particularly revolutionary for anyone who’s familiar with Arendt, Foucault or Handke. Han’s comparisons and criticisms are certainly interesting, but not mind-blowing. For the layperson, The Burnout Society serves as an excellent introduction to a strain of academic philosophy that’s immediately relevant to their lives and concerns.

I have only one minor criticism. Han suffers from a problem specific to philosophers—attributing existential and abstract causes to phenomena that could easily have material origins and subsequently eschewing any reference to scientific research. There are two instances of this in The Burnout Society. One is only incidental to his claim, but the other is more closely tied with one of his central premises.

Right at the start, Han describes ADHD, depression, and borderline personality disorder as results of an excess of “positivity” in today’s society, as if there’s no underlying brain with its attendant neurological wiring and chemical (im)balances that come into play. However, he doesn’t claim that the prevalence of these conditions somehow irrefutably proves his point. Rather, Han seems to take them merely as examples of the problems he is discussing.

On the other hand, Han seems to build a rather large part of his argument on ideas about the differences between human and animal cognition (focus versus multi-tasking) that lack any reference to contemporary studies or research. It’s a metaphorical leap that I can accept because I’m sympathetic to Han’s ultimate thesis, but as a premise it requires more scientific backing.

At the end of the day, I’d love for Han to replace our current crowd of useless “public intellectuals” but life isn’t fair, is it?

The Space Between Worlds

I normally don’t discuss covers much, but this time I will.

The anglophone books available to me are more often than not UK editions.  Sometimes there’s no difference from the US covers, sometimes there’s a huge difference, but never before have I encountered such a mood whiplash between the two.

US edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
US cover, courtesy Crown

Going strictly by the cover, I would assume that we were looking at a fluffy romantic comedy in a sci-fi setting. Either that or a parallel lives kind of story, similar to My Real Children but more light-hearted. Compare that with the UK edition:

UK edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
UK cover, courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

The latter more accurately encapsulates the mood of the book for me. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the US cover, but I have a feeling that it’s probably led to a lot of disappointed readers. Is there fluffy romantic comedy hijinks? Not really! Is there a lot of grappling with the unknown and with morally repellent choices? Yes!

Is there a fair chunk of domestic violence? Also yes.

There is a lot going on in this multiverse story and my brain isn’t really built to handle those kinds of ins and outs. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I don’t know how many times at this point, and I still can’t string together the chain of events surrounding Bunny’s disappearance, the ransom note, and her reappearance without sitting down and drawing a lot of diagrams and timelines. And that’s a story where the intrigue is just the background plot for brilliantly executed scenes and snippets of dialogue—in The Space Between Worlds the intrigue is basically the entire story.

Guess I need to adhere to a stricter drug regimen to keep my mind even more limber.

Getting back to The Space Between Worlds, all of this is potentially a Me problem and not a Book problem. In addition to my troubled relationship with intrigue, I also took a break from the book for almost a whole week, which couldn’t have helped. Keeping track of the different multiverse versions of characters wasn’t necessarily the hard part, but keeping track of all the different Earths and their politics was a lost cause for my addled brain. Earth 0 is the prime, principal Earth on which the bulk of the intrigue plays out, but events on Earths 22 and 175 are also important. Not to mention I think there’s a third Earth that our traverser protagonist Cara visits, but I don’t think it had much to do with the actual plot.

Likewise there are some world-building elements that were not really laid out cleanly for my addled brain, or that were introduced way too late in the story, or that maybe I just happened to skim over. Unfortunately those elements are kind of plot-essential, so from a technical standpoint I wish they had been made clearer earlier on in the story. (Assuming that I just didn’t miss them, which I totally might have!)

But I was able to overlook all of that because I could see that the point for Johnson wasn’t “wow multiverses sure are cool.” Instead, it was more “how would multiverse traveling get integrated into the world as we experience today” and “how can the idea of parallel lives and parallel selves be used as a metaphor for Real Life Stuff,” and I was along for that ride. It seems, judging by other reviews, that some people weren’t along for that ride. And that’s okay! But since one of my own paradigms for years has been the idea of alternate universe versions of myself, Johnson’s take on the multiverse was a lot of fun for me.

The Jakarta Method

Every year I make a concerted effort to dig through my TBR list and the books I already own. It never outweighs the books I read from elsewhere—at this rate, I’d have to spend the next ten years reading only books the TBR to catch up on that front—but without any effort at all it’s just a graveyard of aspirations.

The Jarkata Method was a relatively new addition to the TBR, after I heard it mentioned several times on one of my go-to podcasts. Apparently it only made it as far as the mental TBR, though, since I don’t see it on Storygraph, but I’m counting it since it’s been on my radar since at least 2019.

Swedish edition of The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins
Image courtesy Karneval förlag

I’m not the kind of reader whose review of this particular book will matter, because I’m not a historian or an expert in twentieth century geopolitics. Much of this was new to me, which I expect is largely by design within the US public education system. History more or less ended with the Vietnam War; anything afterwards was too new to be history but too old to be news. I graduated high school with an understanding that the Cold War was a thing that had happened, but not much beyond that, and I suspect that’s the case for a lot of Americans.  But that was over twenty years ago. Maybe it’s finally been long enough for older headlines like Nixon, the Cold War, Reagan, and the Gulf War to be lifted out of the weird memory hole of “news” or “current events” and inducted into the pantheon of “history.” (Hard for me to say. I’m not a high school student in the Year of Our Lord 2022.) For people like me, The Jakarta Method provided a much-needed nutshell version of a slice of American history in an international context you almost never get in US history classes.

The only thing I can note is that reading a Swedish translation of an English language book on US foreign policy is a trip; more than once I found myself thinking, “But what do you know about the US, asshole?” and then remembering who the author is. It’s certainly not like I disagree with Vincent Bevins on any point he raises in the book; quite the opposite, in fact. I just have an instinctive reaction to processing commentary on American politics through the Swedish language. An article I read once (I will have to update this with a link if I find it again) described Europeans’ understanding of US politics to be something akin to a celebrity gossip rag: everyone knows the events, few people understand the context, almost no one is speaking from any kind of personal connection or insider history.

“Why did you even bother reading this in Swedish, then?” I hear you say. Because that’s what the library had available. Besides, anything in Swedish is a win for my yearly goal of 25% book consumption in Swedish.

I have no complaints about the Swedish translation of The Jakarta Method. Stefan Lindgren did a fine job, as far as I’m able to tell. Unfortunately there are at least two Stefan Lindgrens working in translation, so I can’t be sure who to thanks. I think it’s safe to credit this particular Stefan Lindgren, despite his age (wonder if I’ll still be working at 70!), since the topic matter seems to be adjacent to his other work, but he doesn’t seem particularly active these days. Who knows!

Into the Drowning Deep

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Cover of Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan Maguire, writing as Mira Grant.
Image courtesy Orbit Books

So I won’t be saying anything at all about Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, except that the quality of writing on display in this book makes her childish Twitter tirade in 2017 about the awful (“awful”) job her copy editor did even more cringe-inducing.

Shoutout to Storygraph, now my preferred choice over GoodReads, for allowing me to give a full-on 0-star review.