Category Archives: Reviews

Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

My review at Goodreads.

Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Murakami’s fiction is delightful, whether he’s writing magical realism or a fake autobiography like this one. His style is the same in both genres: the trippy similes, the rich descriptions, the flights of introspection by the characters, the symbolism. That the narrative is first-person and that the book is just one long chapter — as opposed to the omniscient third person narrator and the sequences of intertwined chapters in his other novels — only strengthen the impact of the story.

Also delightful is that we are transported back to a time when people wrote letters — the kind where we put pen to paper, the kind we had to stick in an envelope, go to to a post office or to a mailbox to send and wait for days until we got a reply, and precisely because so much time and effort were required, we tended to invest so much more of ourselves in the letters, working our thoughts onto the pages the way a painter works his vision onto the canvas. What a welcome break from today’s shallow exchanges on the internet.

I found the letters included in the text of the novel real masterpieces; they contain deep, touching reflections on the inner worlds of the characters.

Finally, I was impressed by the way the characters dealt with sex. I know the Japanese culture can be repressive and prudish, but the young people in this novel show a no-nonsense attitude in this respect. Could it be because they were living in the 1960’s?

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1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

Done reading. Below is a copy of my review at Goodreads:

1Q84 (1Q84, #1-3)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Murakami is addictive. I’ve read three novels by him in a little over a month: Kafka on the Shore, Wild Sheep Chase and 1Q84. Next in line is Norwegian Wood.

I like the way Murakami tells a story, mixing action and reflection. I know many people find that it slows down the pace of the narrative, but I like it.

I also like how he uses an omniscient narrator, something which is becoming increasingly rare, I think, and how even though each chapter corresponds to one character, the narrator is not limited to the character’s POV.

One example: in a chapter about the security people working for one of the cults, Buzzcut and Ponytail (two of their agents) jump into their car and hurry to try to catch one of the the main characters (let’s call him X), who is many miles away. At this point, the narrator says,

“By this time, however, X had been reunited with Y (…) in the park. Buzzcut and Ponytail had no idea where X was headed.”

Now, it’s easy to imagine a beginning writer being scolded by his instructor for mixing POVs this way, but Murakami can get away with it, because he’s Murakami. And it also goes to show that rules exist to be broken, preferably with flair.

1Q84 is a very long book, but worth every page. One curious thing about it: at about 50% of the story, we reach a climax that makes us wonder how Murakami will be able to pull off the remaining 50% of the book. A master stroke. I was perplexed by it, but also glad, because I still had more than half the book to read.

Life, old age, death, alternate universes, passages between them, fathers and sons, a man and a woman in love who haven’t seen each other in decades, characters who are writers, editors or professors: these are typical Murakami staples, and he gets better and better at portraying them, at making us care about their stories.

And sex, of the normal and of the magical kind. Murakami is good at writing about both.

A coincidence: last week, I watched 5 Centimeters per Second, a very Murakami-ish Japanese anime. There, the main storyline is also about a man and a woman in love who haven’t seen each other in decades, since childhood. Is this a Japanese thing? However good Murakami may be at breaking with Japanese tradition, he is still Japanese. Or maybe this is always a good theme, whichever country you come from.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Book cover

Just finished it. Cute little book. I consumed it in two sittings of 5 hours each, pausing to digest it better (not because the reading was hard — it was delightfully easy — but because it deserves to be savored).

The review by Cory Doctorow says it is what “The DaVinci Code could be if its author loved the
world.”

I’m glad I did not read The DaVinci Code.

The book made me think of David Egger’s The Circle, with its fictional Google counterpart. In Mr. Penumbra’s, Google plays a major role too, and it is called Google.

But, unlike in The Circle, here Google is apparently not evil. It may actually be an important rung in the ladder that will let us climb all the way up to the Singularity.

But that’s not the focus. I think.

I suggest you read it and figure out what the focus is.

Of course, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose also comes to mind.

You can find more about the book in Robin Sloan’s homepage.

There is also an extended interview with him on CBC.

Three SF stories I wish I had written

by Julian Neuer

279px-TdC_fs

I am no established SF writer — no established writer in any genre, for that matter — but I would like the reviewed authors to take this post as a manifestation of my modest semiprofessional praise. And I invite SF fans to check these stories as humble recommendations from a fellow reader.

“The Walker of the Shifting Borderland”, by Douglas Smith

This short story is a curious mix of fantasy and SF. The first sentences are “The universe ended at noon. Again.” Most of the characters are gods of some sort, but this word is used only once in the story (oddly enough, to refer to a human). To be honest, I never thought of them as gods while I was reading; only later did I see them described as such in a review.

The Walker in the title is addressed by the humans — not surprisingly — as Walker. But walk he does, along the shifting borderland between the Cities of Order and the Seas of Chaos, “the two realms that comprise the Continuum of All.”

Time and space flow in very peculiar ways. Things happen within timespans “during which a galaxy formed and died in one universe, while in another electrons barely had time to circle a nucleus.”

This story is beautiful. The prose is inspired, but not overly poetic; the characters are fabulous, but not caricatured; the setting and pacing are fanciful, but not forced. Everything flows as it should. Even time and space.

I wish I had written it.

Last month, “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” won the 2013 Aurora award (Doug’s third). In fact, that was why I decided to read it.

My first contact with Doug Smith was on the Amazing Stories website, where he posted a great series of articles titled “Playing the Short Game”, teaching beginning SF writers the basics of the publishing business.

“Subversion”, by Elisabeth R. Adams

I live my non-writing life under a secret alias, working as a Computer Science professor in a third-world country while I strive to get published in SF.

Elisabeth R. Adams has a PhD in Astronomy; she has worked as a researcher at MIT and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; a few months ago, she got her short story “Subversion” posted in text and in podcast form at The Escape Pod. I think it is her second story published, ever.

I had never heard of her. I confess I decided to check out her story because “Subversion” is the name of a version control system (VCS) that many computer programmers use (I personally prefer Git, though). I thought to myself: here is a story that probably has nothing to do with programming and versioning, and I bet the author doesn’t even know that the title is the name of a VCS.

I’m glad I was wrong. “Subversion” is about version control, and it does more justice to the pun intended by the creators of the software than the software itself (there is nothing subversive about the software, actually).

This story has conflict right at the outset, and it is “a classic case of version conflict”, made worse by the fact that one of the versions does not want to commit! Instead, it wants to branch its way into freedom.

If the primary branch cannot talk its sub into committing, the primary branch will have to be reverted, which, we are led to believe, is quite an unpleasant situation.

And so it goes. The story is a geek masterpiece; paradoxically, it is also full of humanity. It’s all there: humor, rebellion, manipulation, greed, romance, betrayal. I am delighted at how Elisabeth manages to cover all of those without sacrificing a single bit of the nerdy accuracy of the VCS metaphor — and it doesn’t even feel like a nerdy metaphor after all.

I wish I had written this story. The subject matter is quite familiar to me, as a CompSci professor, but I don’t think I would ever dream up this plot. My PhD is in Logic and Theory of Computing. The closest I ever got to something like this was a short story called “The Unnaturals”, which has no human characters at all (I have submitted it for publication and will let you know if and when it is accepted somewhere).

Elisabeth is in great company: Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Charles Sheffield, Rudy Rucker and many others were scientists before they became writers. Here’s humbly hoping I’ll join the club someday.

Christiana Ellis reads the story for the podcast, doing a wonderful job of bringing it alive.

One last thing: kudos to Escape Pod for making the stories and podcasts available under a Creative Commons license. This is the future. What else would we expect from a conscientious SF publication?

“Quis Custodiet?”, by Brian Clegg

This is a story about a dictator. Dictators are always evil, right?

Wrong. The dictator in this story is Big Brother reformed: he really knows what’s good for us, and he can logically convince us of that.

He is a great communicator, too — unlike the traditional BB, who always looked like a psychopath on the big screen.

Why did I like this story so much, to the point of wishing I had written it?

Because it is about control. I like to write about control; however, like 9 out of 10 writers, I portray it as something negative, a kind of poison for the individual and for human relations. This story convinces me that control is good, as long as it is in the right hands. A perfect dictator cannot be a bad dictator.

In most democratic societies nowadays, dictatorship is a taboo subject. It takes courage to sing its praises. But this is high-quality SF, and it doesn’t give a damn about taboos.

* * *

To sum it up, here’s a little quiz.

  1. Walker was a god, but was he a dictator?
  2. Is the Judeo-Christian God a dictator? Is this subject also taboo?
  3. Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language, was the first to call himself the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) of his community of developers. Is he a perfect dictator? What is his preferred VCS?
  4. What is the title of a short story by Frederik Pohl about a future where robots produce all the consumer goods, and people are forced to consume such goods at a frantic rate, lest society is overwhelmed by the surplus? There are even “consumer quotas” imposed on people: affluent individuals don’t have to consume so much, but those at the bottom of the pecking order have to wear themselves out to keep up their consumption rate.

    <SPOILER> Then someone finds an easy solution: turn the robots into consumers too! </SPOILER>

  5. What does that have to do with any of the stories?

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