All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

Month: February 2020

Qubism

A Review of Tom Hillenbrand’s Qube

For a change, this is a review of a book I got as an advanced reader copy. It’s a German book by an author who has been translated into English before, so there is a realistic hope that this book will be translated into English at some point. Ostensibly I’m writing this review only in English because my audience i.e. at this point still almost exclusively my nerdfighter friends are mostly English-speaking and only in small parts speakers of German.

Though that probably isn’t the weirdest part of this review. No, crown probably goes to the fact that this is part two within a universe called Hologrammatica by Tom Hillenbrand. I have in fact not read part one yet, and I don’t know if I will, just for logistical reasons, so bear with me should that first part have substantial influences on your reading of this second instalment. But without much further ado, let’s get into this review of Qube.

Though I probably have to make the disclaimer here, that I received this book as an ARC, and didn’t pay for it. I’m trying to not let this really influence my review of it, but this is called transparency. Here’s my review on vorablesen.de (German).

Physical Book

Now, holding a book in your hand that’s only about to be released to the wider public has a special feel to it. This book is a pretty standard German paperback though. That means it’s nothing special, but it also isn’t crap. The cover design is simple yet intriguing, so basically the way I like my covers to be, even if I’m as of late a bit bored with red and black and white cover designs. Yes, yes those are striking colours, and easy to combine in ways that look good, but I just want something more daring.

The Setting & World-Building

Qube takes place in a future post-climate-change, after the advancement of computation into the realm of true artificial intelligence, or short AI. And while you might want to insinuate that this book might be a bit too much in love with technology, this nevertheless remains a world you can find yourself swallowed in without the immersion being broken by inconsistencies or other problems of world-building.

Sometimes however the technobabble masks too much of the plot and its really interesting themes though. Sure, there’s a plethora of technology to explain in this book from holograms, to mind-uploads and body swaps to the ins and out of information security and AI, that might be too much for a technologically non-interested reader, but sometimes I would have preferred to have more of that outsourced to the glossary, at the end.

I’m not going to dissect the world of this book in regards to its plausibility in regards to being a prediction of the world in 2091. That is a road I don’t want to travel on. There are definitely technologies in here that sound more like magic to me than like technology, but as Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage states:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

The Plot

Beneath this splurge of technology hides a quite multi-faceted plot. Hillenbrand, especially in the first half manages to juggle multiple interlace threads of plots, separated by almost torturous cliff-hangers. Sometimes, of course, a particular thread was more interesting and cut short by an intermezzo of all the other plot-threads, but that is the price you have to pay for this interspersed way of telling a story with multiple main actors spread around the earth and at times the solar system. Yes, this novel contains space travel, though the main plot remains steadfastly on the earth.

There the plot starts rolling with a headshot that almost kills Calvary Doyle, an investigative reporter on track to solve a mystery around the last incident around AI in 2049. The police investigations into Calvary Doyle’s attempted killing prove to be more complicated than a simple case of attempted murder however and start to involve multi-billion-dollar companies, AI, death and a plethora of body-swaps.

The Characters

And who carries out these body swaps? Mostly Commander Fran Bittner, sometimes Francesco or Francesca depending on the appearance of his current vessel. And that is probably one of the most interesting points in regards to the characters. We get to enjoy some form of non-binary, maybe genderfluid, maybe bigender representation. Of course, it might be stifled by German’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns and also might not be really concerned with much of what the LGBTQ community is concerned with, but the main character’s gender is explicitly discussed at least once as “outside of the binary”.

Other than that the book is just filled up with a normal amount of solid characters. To me, none of them feels overdrawn or like paper cut-outs to fill the story, but all of our main characters seem to have understandable motivation. The main characters are of diverse genders, though definitely lack in racial and ethnic diversity if not as Fran Bittner body swapped into a body of another race. Only side characters get to be of another background natively in this regard.

One last criticism of the characters I have to mention: their naming. And this criticism is somewhat in keeping with the aforementioned technobabble this book succumbs to. The names Hillenbrand throws around, are too stereotypically English. They are exactly what you think a German would make up when tasked with finding stereotypical names. They sometimes don’t read as names at all, and sometimes are just funny. Especially, in the first couple of chapters, these names really got to the point where they ripped a hole in the hologram of my immersion

The Writing

Naming and technobabble are probably the points that hurt Qube‘s writing the most. There’s a little issue of pacing towards the end of the plot, though if that actually is an issue or just a plot-twist probably depends on your reading of the book, for me at least it was a hump I had to drag my ADHD brain over to then get back to enjoying the book quite a lot.

In terms of writing, this book seems to be a pretty standard sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in here, but also nothing that is egregiously well written, except maybe for the plot interlacing.

Summary

And I think that is also a good summary for this book. It’s an interesting and solidly written sci-fi thriller. It’s genuinely gripping at points, but it’s no masterwork.

There are a whole lot of great thoughts and ideas here, from immortality via body swaps to artificial intelligence. There’s some non-binary representation, but a lack of racial and ethnical representation. I think a bit more focus on one of these ideas, a smaller scope wouldn’t have harmed this book, but as it is it’s still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. And you definitely don’t need to have read part 1 of the Hologrammatica series to understand Qube. At least I didn’t even notice there was a part 1 to this.

My last fiction review was about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. And my last book review was about Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? My next book review concerns another German book: Der Freie Hund by Wolfgang Schorlau and Claudio Caiolo.

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Realistic Expectations

A Review of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?

This is a first for these book reviews. This time I’m reviewing a work of non-fiction instead of a fictional story. Of course, this doesn’t fit into my usual structure of book reviews, so please excuse if this get’s established as it goes and is maybe a bit rougher around the edges than usual. But let us get started: This is a very short book. It only contains roughly 80 densely packed pages, but these are ram-packed with insightful information and thought-provoking ideas. It describes our reality through an interesting philosophical lense and examines the influence capitalism has on the perspective and framing with which we view our world, our lives and our surroundings.

I first found this book through somewhat unusual circumstances. Well maybe, these circumstances aren’t too weird in a modern globally-connected world. I found them through a YouTube video by PhilosophyTube. Namely Olly’s first video on mental health and suicide, I put below. [Content Warning: light flashes, talk about suicide, self-harm and mental health]

But back to the book, which itself talks about mental health in a different light as Olly Thorne does.

Physical Book

This book is an exceedingly short book, it’s almost more of a collection of continued essays or maybe a lengthened scientific article. For my 2009 Zero Books paperback edition that comes packaged as a very thin book with wide pages more resembling the ways scientific articles are printed than how books in fiction are presented. As it’s thin it’s pretty flimsy but doesn’t suffer from the troubles of thick paperbacks with strong backs.

The Argument

The main argument within this book is that there is a worldview, which Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, that permeates society in late-stage capitalism and hinders efforts to leave capitalism behind by creating the illusion that there is indeed no alternative to capitalism.

Fisher generally sees one way to break down this veil behind which capital is hiding. Namely, he thinks. we need to find the real that destroys our preconceived capitalist reality. He sees a few big contenders for general topics that could manage to rip the curtain of capitalist realism down: the ecological crisis caused by capitalism and so inherently unsolvable by capital, for example, climate change, mental health and education.

There’s one particular point about the interface between education and mental health Fisher draws that almost made me stop reading this book. My gripe essentially is that while yes, I can see an inadequate blaming of mental health issues on individuals, I also think this book ignored the very real troubles of mental illness that would still persist even within a society where the systemic causes or external stressors of our current society were removed. Especially, his mention of ADHD, from which I personally “suffer”, elicited that reaction in me, because I genuinely feel problems arising from my mental health that are not caused or even exacerbated by society, but just are part of how my brain works.

The Writing & Style

Fisher draws upon tons of sources, especially Slavoj Žižek and finds a ton of analogies in pop culture, especially movies and books. His style is one I found very typical for philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Somewhere between academic and free-flowing essay. What makes this book hard to read are its presumptions of prior knowledge. The expectation that you are familiar with the thoughts of a broad range of philosophers and jargon of anti-capitalism.

There’s at least to some extent a thread running through this book that kept me on line with reading it, but I struggle to put into words what that thread was. Maybe it was just the idea of having finished a book quickly soon. It was short enough to do that, even if the ableism around page 24 irked me enough to slather a “Fuck You” into this book.

Summary

In the end, I wonder why so often I’m drawn to books on philosophy when reading them so often leaves me dissatisfied or angry, and exhausted at the lengthy sentences.

I don’t think I really would recommend this book to a general audience. A broad and deep knowledge of philosophy, which I do not possess, is probably required to get the full extent of insight this short book provides. It draws references to other philosophers and pop culture again and again, and it does a disservice to not understand those references.

For a general audience, this book remains too conceptual to be of much value, and it stays too much in the description of the de facto world we live in instead of actually pointing to a liveable alternative except in the last few pages where Fisher points to actionable strategies in the fight against capital, but those are somewhat removed from the main thesis of this book.

Now I would cringe at the idea that a book needs to be actionable to be of value, but I think together with this and the hints of ableism and anxiety about change dispersed within, this book isn’t ready to be read by a general audience, it is more a working paper, for others to expand upon. Being well versed in anti-capitalist theory definitely improves this read.

My last book review was Sickening Love of Privilege? about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. Up next a review of the German book Qube by Tom Hillenbrand: Qubism.
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Sickening Love of Privilege?

A Review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera

I think, this, for the first time in the admittedly short history of my book reviews, is a review of a book I didn’t particularly enjoy. With writing about something that I didn’t enjoy outright, there come some difficulties and hurdles. These hurdles are especially pressing, as I didn’t hate this book – it just bored me quite often. Boring things always are particularly hard for my ADHD-brain, and I’m surprised I still managed to read this book so quickly despite the fact I often only managed to press on with a feeling of obligation.

Why did I feel obligated to read this book? Well, it’s lauded as one of the big works of Gabriel García Márquez who incidentally is a Nobel laureate in literature. This should give some indication to the importance this book assumes, and nevertheless, I did not enjoy it as much as I had expected. So this review will be tasked with the job of figuring out why this book disappointed my expectations, and maybe if this is an outlier in Gabriel García Márquez’ work.

As should be noted here, I don’t speak or read Spanish, I can cobble together a few words here and there with my Latin and French, but for this, I relied on a hopefully faithful translation into German by Dagmar Ploetz. To be exact I read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in its German translation as Liebe in den Zeiten der Cholera.

The Physical Book

My edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is the 14th German paperback edition published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in April of 2014, originally published as a paperback in Germany in February of 2004, 10 years earlier, and as a hardcover in 1987. The original Spanish edition was published in 1985.

The book itself is a paperback of middling sturdiness, its cover kept in dark red and purple with a flaming parrot painted by Brad Holland on the front. It’s an understated book despite the saturated colours on its cover. Fitting with the heat this book contains on so many levels.

The Setting

Never is the city in which the plot primarily unfolds named, and that’s not to a detriment. Through some research and collection of geographical hints dropped within the book, the city could be identified as Cartagena in the north of Colombia, but as a reader, I’m not as much interested in the reality of a place as much as I’m interested in how much I feel like I can become a part of it. García Márquez manages exactly that with his descriptions of city through the lifetime of two adults some time from the latter half of the 19th to the earlier half of the 20th century. Through a changing environment and very much changing story, the city retains its own character.

This place is not, strictly speaking, beautiful. The city is not luring me to a visit (at least not a time-travelling one), but it is nevertheless a fascinating place, that came vividly into my mind with every single one of the 509 pages of this book I turned.

The Plot

This plot is an outlier in the things I usually like to read, to some extent at least. It is centred around love. The title doesn’t hide it, but the love is not just a side story in a cholera epidemic, no it’s the main point and arguably the only “cholera” this story has to offer. This metaphor might be a bit blunt in English or in German but becomes a play on words in Spanish, or so I’ve heard.

The plot revolves around three main characters and their play around love and marriage. Florentino Ariza plays an extravagant play of courtship when he deeply falls in love with the young Fermina Daza, only to be booted out by her father and the successful and more privileged Dr Juvenal Urbino, who just returned from his studies in Europe. Still, Florentina Ariza vows eternal fidelity to Fermina and never marries. He sets out to wait for Dr Juvenal Urbino’s death in the hope to then get back together with the love of his youth.

He keeps his vows at first completely, but then only superficially as he discovers sex and tries to forget his aching love, that his mother at first compared to cholera, through sex. He becomes an outright sex-addict and his adventures cascade into more and more morally questionable behaviour as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, Fermina Daza experiences the heights and lows of her married life with Dr Juvenal Urbino.

This recounting of their adult lives is framed by the first and last chapter. The first chapter describes the last days of Dr Juvenal Urbino’s life and his death, with a parrot and a mango tree. The last chapter describes life after his death and a fateful voyage on one of Florentino Ariza’s company’s river steamers.

The plot keeps a surprising amount of elegance even if for me the constant love and sex of this story fell somewhat flat. I’m just not too interested in who fucks whom and loves whom with eternal faithfulness, I would have rather have the suicide with which this book opens explored more, but you can’t always get what you wish for.

The Characters

The two characters this story centres around are two very different humans, at least on a surface level. After closer inspection, they exhibit striking similarities, however. Both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are societal upstarts, moving into the upper society of their city throughout their life. One through marriage, the other through work in anticipation of the end of said marriage.

The main characters are fully fleshed out over their lives. Our narrative point of view jumps back between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, with interludes of Fermina Daza’s husband Dr Juvenal Urbino being the focus of this story. And we follow these characters basically through their entire life from their adolescence to their death or their last years of life. No character is without their moral flaws. At least Florentino Ariza engages in outright gross behaviour at points in this story. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most constant identification points for the reader and to some degree, their flaws make them more human, even if they are still all members of privileged society, and to a striking extent cishet white and male.

Being gay is used as an element of social derision at many points in this book, but that’s probably in keeping with the time this book is set in, but nobody is actually gay. Black characters are mostly only introduced as potential love interests and with a weird racialising tone in their descriptions, to a point they are objectified. At several points, I was left wondering how much of these descriptions had to find their way into this book to capture the racialised tone of the time, or if it could have been framed better. At least a counterbalance to the racialising inner monologue of our main characters would have been a welcome refreshment.

Florentino Arizo appears definitely as a love-stricken sex addict, who doesn’t even recoil from morally questionable affairs with people way younger than him. Fermina Daza appears as a somewhat unwilling wife and victim of cultural expectations of womanhood and Dr Juvenal Urbino seems to be basking in his glory and privilege without being conscious of said privilege.

The Writing & Themes

So neither the characters nor the plot managed to grasp my attention. What kept me from throwing this book aside. Well, aside from the weird feeling of obligation I felt to read this book, there was the writing. I really enjoyed many of the descriptions this book had to offer, ad I felt engrossed by the general mood this book managed to set.

This might just be a case, of “this is not the best book to start with for Gabriel García Márquez”, but it was disappointing to me that a well-written book like this fell down in the plot department. The writing manages to incorporate its themes so well, and the structure is thought out excellently, it feels just like a world you can dive into without trouble.

Thematically, this book sets out multiple different points. There’s the comparison of love as an illness, that is masterfully incorporated in the wordplay around cholera and the physical heat. This oppressive heat was almost recognisable on my skin as I turned the pages of this book.

There are a few other themes that struck me while reading. One of them is the environment. This probably fits in with the theme of illness, at least they are closely connected. The destruction of the natural beauty of the woodlands and mangroves, the dead fish swimming in the overfished lagoon and the sewage of the city itself go hand in hand with the dangers of the cholera epidemic that stays in the background for the entirety of the whole plot. Though there are probably even more themes in this book that a reader could find, and that I could talk about after closer inspection and maybe a second read.

Summary

I struggle to recommend this book. If you’re interested so far, you should definitely be okay with reading detailed descriptions of sex and even sex in, in my opinion, abusive situations. This is not an easy read, and it definitely isn’t a book that hides its gruesome elements, be they death or promiscuity and rape.

Other than that, if you enjoy love stories and stories that follow through the lives of others, this is definitely a book for you. Though if you’re just starting out with Gabriel García Márquez, I would maybe recommend starting with another book or even better with his short stories. I myself am not terribly familiar with Latin American culture and writing and I’ve been told there are better things out there, but I also have to concede that in all of Latin American Writing there will be parts lost on me, just because I’m generally not familiar with it.

Maybe these losses hurt my general view on this book, but still for me this was a so-so experience. I enjoyed the writing, themes and descriptions. I missed some nuance to the characters sometimes, but enjoyed how relatable if morally questionable they appear, but I could not give much praise to the plot and story of this book, which just was too much of a privileged love story, that reminded me a bit too much of the somewhat cliché German institution of Rosamunde Pilcher movies.

My last book review was Four Gods of Nature about Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Up next probably a review of a non-fiction book: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?.
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Added the Gay in Post?

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but now with much further ado my next review of a song from early Eurovision. We’re still in 1956.

So let’s get started with this review of Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie sung by Mony Marc of Belgium properly. Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie was the 10th song performed during the Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne in 1956 and was the second entry for Belgium that night.

Despite the weird touch reminiscent of Chinese music the imitations of church bells, this melody starts out with, this song honestly tickles my fancy more than the winning song we talked about the last time. It at least feels more unique in this field of all too similar songs.

This song is obviously about the most beautiful day in the life of the singer. Talking about her wedding in the most cliched way possible. There’s not much that interests me beyond that face-value description, but I think I just enjoy the mood the melody sets out. Sadly this song is maybe a bit too straight for my liking. That’s why the art to the right rightfully ignores the talk about “lui” and “Prince Charmant”, and finds a way to make this into a lesbian wedding.

Maybe I’m just getting used to chanson-style songs over the course of this project. Maybe I’ve always enjoyed this genre, but I’m definitely not opposed to listening to it. And with this particular Belgian song, I’m just transported into a kitschy but beautifully nostalgic world – accompanied by a very clear voice.

There’s not much else to say about this song, nor is there much to say about its singer who has apparently kept herself out of the limelight of public attention.

As always I’ll leave you with the playlist of reviewed songs:

This is part 10 of my ESC-Reviews. If you want more feel free to check out my last one or check out my book reviews.

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