Niels Klim’s Underground Travels – Ludvig Holberg


If I had to endure any stock speculative fiction scenario, I’d choose the hollow earth. Partially because Etidorpha made a lasting impression on me, partially because getting lost in a cave is easier than space travel, partially because subterranean societies often combine superscience with occultism and that’s real cool. Knowing my luck, I’d probably end up in some derivative vampire novel filled with bloodsuckers who go on and on about how they’re different from those vampires you read about in other books, they’re sensible realistic vampires, sunlight doesn’t phase them and their mind-reading powers are definitely not silly. Out of sheer irritation, I’d make lazy quips about Twilight until they stake me. I’d rather meet a dinosaur anyday.

So you can imagine my joy when I started read Niels Klim’s Underground Travels, a 1741 Danish novel that can lazily be described as a fusion of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Gulliver’s Travels. Niels Klim is a graduate who explores the wrong cave and ends up plummeting down to the fantastically-named planet Nazar, an orb floating within a geocentric solar system within the hollow earth, complete with miniature sun. He lands in Potu, a kingdom inhabited by condescending tree people – basically Groots with a Houyhnhnm attitude. After working as a footman for a year, the king tasks him with writing a travelogue of Nazar.

I’ve gotta say, this book’s initial set-up was highly reminiscent of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. Both novels begin with the protagonist falling into the hollow earth and getting arrested by sentient plants. Baum likely read Niels Klim.

Niels’ travels are Oz-like, since they’re a sequence of episodic encounters with freakish beings and bizarre societies. Most of them are trees, including a nation of desolate philosophers, a nation of ecstatic innocents, and a place where traditional gender roles are reversed. Beyond the flora, Niels meets prophetic mermaids, animal people, walking and talking musical instruments and a merchant who communicates exclusively through farts. The last chapter, which reads like a parody of the white savior trope, has Niels shipwrecked upon an island of primitive humans who he quickly transforms into an all-powerful empire, with him as the megalomaniacal tyrant.

There’s a lot that goes on underground.

Easily the best part of Niels Klim are the extracts from Fragments of Tanian’s Diary, kept on a Voyage above-ground, Translated by his Excellency, M. Tomopoloko, General-in-chief, in the Service of his Tanaquitic majesty. These extracts invert the novel’s premise by allowing an inhabitant of Nazar to describe European society. It’s funny stuff, particularly Tanian’s understanding of Catholicism.

There’s only one thing that bothers me. What are the houses made from in Potu? For a tree to live in a wooden house seems uncomfortably close to cannibalism, especially for a society that makes so much of its morality. Maybe it’s fine if the houses are made from a different species of timber, I tell myself something similar whenever I eat meat. If I were writing a story about bipedal tree people I’d have them live in caves or in huts woven from vines. Why would a tree even need a house?

Ignoring pressing real estate questions, I’d recommend Niels Klim to Gulliver fans. It’s not as good, but it’s the same sort of thing.


Significant Digits – Alexander D

It’s Harry Potter, but not as you know it.

I really should feel guilty for writing something so corny, but what the hell, it fits the sci-fi tone of the story.

Significant Digits is the sequel to Elizer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, perhaps the most famous fan fiction of recent years. If you haven’t read it, imagine if Ponder Stibbons from Discworld was so arrogant that he could bully the Unseen University faculty into doing whatever experiment he wanted. Alexander D is kind enough to offer a synopsis of his inspiration on his site, and I’ve actually got a review of it somewhere on my blog, but honestly, I think Significant Digits is the superior novel.

It begins with an adult Harry Potter in the process of ‘optimising’ the wizarding world through international treaties and scientific investigation into the mysteries of magic. With the ultimate goal of defeating death, Harry has voluntarily placed himself under house arrest within his Tower, his main scientific institute, fearing a prophecy predicting that one day he will destroy the world. Meanwhile, a superpowered Hermione has set herself the task of abolishing Azkaban prisons and Draco Malfoy is presumably up to no good.

The focus on the world outside Britain is one of Significant Digits’ greatest strengths. Sometimes I suspect that part of Harry Potter’s appeal is the complete absence of Americans. I know that must sound harsh to American readers, but just try imagining hearing American accents blare from televisions your whole life to the point that local accents, if they make it to television, sound ridiculous. There’s got to a huge overlap between Anglophiles and hard-core Potter fans. Sometimes I think Rowling took the British thing too far, sometimes her Wizarding World bordered on autarky. Alexander D remedies this oversight by showing us how magical communities organise themselves in India, China, Turkey, and yes, America. In fact, how Harry’s faction deals with the America’s Westphalian Council is a significant plotline line a book. His worldbuilding, extrapolating from Rowling’s vague concepts, is very satisfying.

Oh, and at one point, someone refers to a biscuit as a ‘cookie’. That ruined the immersion for me – cookie is a blatant Americanism and honestly, it sounds babyish to me. Probably because I most frequently use the word ‘cookie’ in relation to the famous monster. (You know he has a British cousin called the Biscuit Monster? Also I’m fairly sure his vision isn’t that great – his eyes never change direction, probably the reason why he sometimes eats thing that aren’t actually food).

Back to Significant Digits. This story is far less didactic than Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. With HPMOR, it felt like every other chapter had Harry attempt to resolve an argument with Dumbledore by giving him a lecture about Bayesian numbers, or textbook psychology or statistics. I don’t mind being challenged by fiction, but I draw the line at being lectured by it. Alexander D still bought the big ideas to his story, like space travel through bottomless gourds or the creative use of magical contracts, but none of these props distracted from the narrative.

What did distract from the narrative was the epigraphs. Sure, I don’t mind a bit of Beowulf or Aeschylus every now and then, but an italicised verse at the beginning of each passage is a bit gratuitous. Still they’re very easy to skim over and they do an excellent job of adding some historical depth to the story, which is particularly worthwhile seeing how lacking that was in Rowling’s world. I also appreciated the extracts from fictional wizarding manuscripts, especially the one about Merlin.

In my totally objective opinion, Significant Digits is better than Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I don’t know if it’s the best fan fiction I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly up there. Rowling should seriously consider publishing some of these things, along the lines of those old Star Trek or Buffy paperbacks, maybe some of the money could go to Lumos. And I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if something like Significant Digits won the Hugo Award one day.



Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon


Thomas Pynchon knows who Prince Vegeta is.

Normally you’d expect the relationship between a cartoon character and a Western Literary Canon novelist to be the other way around. Homer Simpson would recognise the name Shakespeare, you can assume that Daria would be familiar with Kafka, but it’d really blow your mind if they starting talking about characters from nineties animation.

My mind was certainly blown when Pynchon described his protagonist’s children watching Dragon Ball Z, bubbling over with questions like: does he identify with King Kai or he is more of a Doctor Briefs man? Has he managed to wring some Pynchonian insight out of the all that filler? Did he mention Vegeta specifically because he’s clearly the best character in the whole franchise? In 2012 my literary diet was heavily dominated by surprisingly intelligent Dragon Ball fan fiction – did he write one of those stories under a pseudonym?

Bleeding Edge tells the story of a de-certified private detective who finds herself investigating New York’s cyberspace scene in the months before 9/11.

As the invocation of Prince Vegeta shows, Pynchon did a whole lot of research on late nineties/early noughties culture. How well this works for you probably depends on how old you were in 2001 – I was eleven, so this novel was a weird nostalgia piece for me. I’d be very interested in seeing what a tech-head would make of it.

This was probably the most disappointing Pynchon book I’ve read to date. Maybe it was between me being busy and worrying about looking for work, but I had trouble keeping track of the protagonist’s motivations and beliefs. I know that Pynchon’s works are meant to be this wave of semi-coherent prose that you’re meant to let wash over you like some sort of literary ocean, but I felt more confused than engaged.

Still, I want to get my hand on a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Shada – Gareth Roberts

Based on a Douglas Adams script that never made it to air, Gareth Robert’s novel sees the Doctor and Romana reunite with a retired timelord posing as a professor at an Oxbridge university.  The professor inadvertently lends an ancient Gallifreyan tome to a student looking for something to impress his intimidating love interest, and it finds itself in the hands of the tacky time-travelling villain Shada.

The weird thing about this book was that the narration often felt at odds with the dialogue. Roberts was adapting Adam’s screenplay, but his description of events often guessed at the character’s motivations and their emotional reactions. Honestly it felt a bit disjointed at times.

Shada isn’t the best Doctor Who novel I’ve read, but if nothing like this existed I’d always be wondering what the lost Adams was all about, so it’s worth reading on that level.

Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin

There’s a Borges story about a cabal of wise men who write an encyclopedia about a fictional world that somehow consumes the real one. Ursula K. le Guin attempts something similar in Always Coming Home.

Her book is a collection of writings, including novel extracts, folktales and glossaries, about a Californian community called The Valley waiting in the far future. Neither a dystopia or utopia, more an alternatopia where every social attitude and custom is different from our contemporary mores, yet somehow everything manages to even out in moral terms. Their idea of wealth is to share, they have no gods but a complicated spirituality, and although their Earth is depleted of the resources they’d need to develop industrial technology they can always consult an interstellar AI that seemed to have descended from our internet.

Guin’s technique of describing another world through fictional secondary sources recall Defontenay’s lost classic Star, which did the same thing back in the nineteenth century. With this sort of speculative fiction, the main community often ends up working like a protagonist, a really big character made up of normal  people who undergoes character development as their culture changes in response to major events. According to me, this technique is what makes ambitious fictional histories like Last and First Men, The Shape of Things to Come and a lot of Tolkein’s stuff engaging to readers. In contrast, Le Guin’s book focuses more on the average person, and that in conjunction with the few changes that occur in the Valley, means that the whole thing didn’t really appeal to me.

Still, the pictures are very nice, and if there’s one thing I say on an infrequent basis, it’s that speculative fiction needs more illustrations. If you’re a massive fan of Earthsea and love the worldbuilding that went into that series, go pick this one up.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolf

Includes Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Auturch

The Book of the New Sun reminds of me when my ability to read books was outstripped by my ability to understand them. Mainly of that time I read Soul Music in primary school – sure, I understood the novel’s basic plot, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something pretty important.

Apparently living in the Earth’s future, post several apocalypses, Severian is a young apprentice exiled from the Torturer’s Guild after an inappropriate relationship with one of their clients. Given a nifty sword and somehow acquiring a supernatural jewel associate with the local Christ analogue, Severian explores a world that is simultaneously antique and futuristic. Along the way he falls in with political subversives and a travelling drama troupe, somehow bumping into every important person in his country.

You know how there’s a point in every Philip K Dick novel where you completely lose the plot? These books had something similar happen every second chapter. Maybe it’s because Wolfe uses obscure words for unfamiliar concepts, maybe it’s because every now and then a chapter is a story being told by a side character, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. Dick gets away with ambiguity because his characters are so well-written they almost feel real, but Wolfe doesn’t manage to do that for me.

I dunno. I’ll have to give this series another try in the next decade, see if I get it then.