Short Book Reviews: Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987), Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981), and Philippe Curval’s Brave Old World (1976, trans. 1981)

Note: My read but “waiting to be reviewed pile” is growing. Short rumination/tangents are a way to get through the stack before the new year and my memory/will fades. Unfortunately, I left two of my favorite reads of the year for last. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.

1. Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

I cannot properly review Where Time Winds Blow (1981). Sometimes, while perambulating the interwebs, I encounter a singular encapsulation of a text’s brilliance that defeats all my own attempts to write constructively about a book. I blame Andrew Darlington’s brilliant review/article on Robert Holdstock contextualizing the novel within his early oeuvre. The short paragraph below–an attempt to convince you to procure a copy–is indebted to his review. Please read his review! There are fan writers and then there are fan writers. Darlington should receive a Hugo nod.

We are plunged into a truly alien world. A planet, with an uncertain/shifting name, is possessed by time winds that flow down a massive valley. Strange shapes (perhaps from previous of future explorations) and mechanism are ejected by the winds. An unusual group of individuals willing to risk everything to shift through the jetsam knowning that the winds could possess them too.

Holdstock’s vision is a well-wrought cavalcade of my favorite SF themes–the shifting sands of time, the pernicious maw of trauma that threatens to bite down, unreliable narrators trying to trek their own paths, a profoundly alien planet that compels humanity to construct an entirely distinct society… It’s a slow novel that initially masquerades as something entirely different. Just like the planet itself.

Gorgeous. Highly recommended.

2. Dawn, Octavia E. Butler (1987)

4/5 (Good)

Dawn (1987) is the second Octavia E. Novel I’ve read after Kindred (1979). I prefer the latter.

The premise: Lilith Iyapo awakes on aboard a huge alien spaceship. The Oankali saved the human survivors from Earth. They repair the earth and healed many human ailments. In return they expect to collect humanity’s genetic material–and to take their humanity.

I struggled with the stark prose and Butler’s complete refusal to use metaphor. Both are deliberate choices designed to highlight the horror and moral conundrum of the scenario. However, humans interpret their worlds and communicate with each other metaphorically. This disconnect frustrated me as pages went by without metaphor or metaphoric interpretation. In an exchange with a friend, we discussed how the Oankali have transformed the surviving humans before Iyapo awoke on the ship into something else–something slightly inhuman. That is a valid point. My artistic sensibilities (I enjoy a gorgeous image, a delightful turn of phrase, a relevant reference)–especially at novel length–clash with Butler’s strategic way of telling. Hence, I struggled with a more extensive review.

The background themes Butler’s novel explores–the disturbing alien view that the value of humanity is tied entirely up in the genetics and the ability to reproduce–resonate. I found myself deeply invested in the travails and agonies of the survivors trying to chart their paths in the bizarre new world they find themselves in. I enjoyed the novel enough to pick up a copy of the sequel–Adulthood Rites (1988)

Recommended despite my quibble.

3. Brave Old World, Phillipe Curval (1976, trans. by Steve Cox, 1981)

2/5 (Bad)

Philippe Curval’s 1950s photo collage cover art for the French SF magazine Fiction are top-notch. I featured them in 2017 (Part I, II). Brave Old World is the only one of Curval’s 20 odd novels available in English translation. Of his many short stories, only “Heavier Than Sleep” received an English translation–it appeared in Maxim Jakubowski’s anthology Twenty Houses of the Zodiac (1979). Here’s his bibliography.

Unfortunately, I struggled to finish Brave Old World. A dystopia emerges between the totalitarian Marcom (Common Market) polity and the rest of the world (the Devna League). The technologically advanced Marcom deployed a shield between the two political entities preventing any exchange. Leo Deryme, possessed by extraordinary psychological powers, manages to transmit a message to the Devna League asking for an agent to infiltrate the barrier. The novel follows Belgacen Attia as he manages to penetrate the barrier–in addition to his quest to commit technological espionage, he seeks to find his lost son.

Yes, this is a Cold War parable of the East vs. the West. Yes, there are intriguing scenes of dissident society within Marcom. I found nothing else memorable. Recommended only for completist fans of French SF in translation. If French-language dystopia is something you want to explore, check out Jean-Louis Curtis’ The Neon Halo (1956, trans. 1958) and Jacques Sternberg’s Future Without Future (1971, trans. 1972)

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29 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987), Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981), and Philippe Curval’s Brave Old World (1976, trans. 1981)

    • It is very very very good. It ticks all the boxes that I look for in SF — a focus on character (and unreliable ones at that), a fascination with memory and time, spectacular world-building (if there’s a knock it’s a few moments where there’s just too many details), and a seductive premise (weird jetsam appearing).

  1. I saw Moorcock’s little blurb on the Holdstock cover. How does Holdstock’s writing compare to Moorcock’s in terms of the pathos and melancholy that permeated most of Moorcock’s stuff?

    • Which Moorcock are you thinking of? Most of what I’ve read of him is far more rushed, slapdash, and unrefined vs. Holdstock. In this novel everything is deliberate and calculated and so much slower in delivery than what I’ve read so far of Moorcock.

      I’ve reviewed the following:

      An Alien Heat (1972)
      “Behold the Man” (1966)
      The Black Corridor (1969)
      “The Delhi Division” (1968)
      The Ice Schooner (1969)
      “The Mountain” (1965)
      “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius” (1965)
      The Warlord of the Air (1971)

      Index with links:

  2. Ah, the infamous whitewashed DAWN cover. Regardless, good capsule review there. I sympathize with the struggle to go long on the review, especially if you clashed with the flat affect of the prose, as I did as well. Ultimately, the overall disquieting impression given by the book has stayed with me much longer than my in-reading frustrations with the presentation of the narrative. And indeed, I think I’ve realized over that time that its lingering power is largely a product of that blunt, cold, and metaphor-scarce approach.

  3. Between yours and Darlington’s comments I’m painted intrigued. I’ve never read Holdstock before and this sounds like the shot. Maybe it’s because I’m reading Inverted World and thinking of times past and future…
    I read Dawn about 15 years ago and recall that I was very impressed by Butler’s ideas and arguments about what it means to be same and other insofar as we pose human identity. I can’t recall the fine details of her prose style, but i am further intrigued by her conceit per your comments, and the apparently deliberate rejection of metaphor. I really should revisit this or read the sequels, perhaps.

    • Ah, speaking of Priest, I just brought up a story of his (see my response to fictionreview) of another deliberate attempt to create metaphor-less prose. However, in “Real-Time World” (1971), the narrator makes clear that he is doing it so we, the reader, don’t think he’s insane in what he describes. I found “Real-Time World” explored SO MANY of the same ideas that The Inverted World did. Adore both although The Inverted World feels more fully realized conceptually.

      Book Review: Real-Time World, Christopher Priest (1974)

  4. I remember reading Where Time Winds Blow many years ago and enjoying it. In retrospect, I’m struck by the similarities between it and Mythago Wood, the book by which Holdstock is best known, mainly because the two books are so different in every other way – one is essentially a work of fantasy, the other a work of science fiction. Yet in both cases you have a character seeking his missing brother in an environment where time is in a constant state of flux.

    Surprisingly (given that his prose is more considered than Moorcock’s) Holdstock seems to have been nearly as prolific as Moorcock. Moorcock was my go-to drug as a teenager; a lot of his stuff doesn’t stand up to re-reading (ie, it was written in a hurry and for the money) but I re-read The Condition of Muzak again a few months ago and it still impressed me, maybe because it was a project he cared about? My impression is that he rather despised S&S, even though he was a formative influence on the genre – although perhaps this same contempt actually helped? (Elric being everything that Conan is not).

    • Thanks for the great comment. As you know, I loved dabbling around the edges before reading an author’s best known work. I read Holdstock’s Eye Among the Blind (1976) — which I wanted to enjoy more than I did. And then this one. I think I’ll read a collection of his short fiction first before Mythago Wood (waiting patiently on the shelf).

      Yeah, I was shocked when I first looked up Holdstock’s bibliography. He wrote ~13 novels under other names.

      As for Moorcock, I enjoy some of his work. The Black Corridor is a wonderful piece of New Wave SF. But novels like An Alien Heat bounced off me.

  5. Thanks for discussing the Robert Holdstock book. I haven’t heard of him so now I have something new to find. I’m an Octavia Butler fan. She uses that kind of stark prose in most of her books which I don’t mind, but it’s an adjustment for some. I kind of like that Brave Old World cover, though, despite the review. I

    • Holdstock is best known for Mythago Wood (1984) — so much so that majority of the conversations I see about him fixate on that novel and that novel alone. Hence, I slipped into Joachim Boaz mode automatically and decided to flit around the edges a bit and read this and Eye Among the Blind (1976) first. I look forward to exploring more of Butler’s work — especially short fiction. I’m a fan of Kindred (1979) as I mentioned.

  6. It has become very clear to me that the fact that I haven’t read anything by Robert Holdstock is something I need to fix very soon! (To be (slightly) fair to me, I’ve known this for some time!) The central idea of WHEN THE TIME WINDS BLOW reminds me of a Gordon R. Dickson novel (TIME STORM) and a David I. Masson story (“Lost Ground”), but there is lots of room for different and interesting approaches to the idea (especially as Dickson’s novel, to my mind, is something of a disappointment.) Perhaps I should make that my first Holdstock novel!

    As for DAWN, and indeed all of XENOGENESIS, I think your review matches my response. It’s a novel — an entire series — that I respect but do not quite love. My favorite Butler works remain KINDRED and the less well-known CLAY’S ARK, plus the great short stories. (Which is to say, almost all of them!)

  7. Oddly enough I read a lot of Holdstock as a teenager, but never got into Mythago Wood which he’s best known for. I remember this being very good, but then a lot of Holdstock was very good.

    Butler I also read then. A strange and challenging author, and I mean that as a compliment. I think she has a fair modern following.

    The third I haven’t read nor do I think I shall…

    • Hello Max, thanks for stopping by. I definitely plan on reading Holdstock’s short fiction in 2022. As for Butler, I might try her Patternist novels this year — Wild Seed (1980) specifically. We shall see!

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