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The Fall Of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1990) 517p.

The first book I read this year was Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, an excellent science fiction space opera written as a homage to Canterbury’s Tales, with seven pilgrims sharing stories while travelling towards a fateful meeting with a mysterious killing machine called the Shrike, on the verge of an intergalatic war. It was one of the best science fiction novels I read in a long time, and the only flaw was its extremely frustrating non-ending.

Apparently The Fall Of Hyperion was originally meant to be meshed with Hyperion as one book, but they were split up for publishing purposes. I don’t see why, since they’re both only about 500 pages long and no self-respecting sci-fi fan will shirk at a book that’s 1000 pages long, but whatever. The Fall of Hyperion picks up directly where Hyperion left off, and it’s just as enjoyable as its predecessor.

Forced to abandon the Canterbury Tales motif, Simmons instead expands the scope of the story. Hyperion featured seven lonely pilgrims on a near-deserted world, their journey ominous and foreboding, with only their past-tense stories serving to show the reader the outside world. The Fall Of Hyperion shows much more; Simmons introduces a somewhat omniscient first-person narrator who is also a character, a technique which could have been annoying but is salvaged by the fact that he’s a very likeable character. He’s also closely entwined with the Hegemony government, and so we see the inner workings of the senate and the cabinet and the war ministry as they scramble to protect their interstellar empire from imminent doom. There are some truly epic scenes in this book, including the destruction of entire planets; after crafting a science fiction universe with such care in Hyperion, Simmons now wreaks havoc upon it, which makes for gripping reading. There are also a number of plot twists I didn’t see coming, which is always pleasant.

There are some occasional awkward moments; Simmons seems determined to shoehorn as many Keats poems into the novel as possible, which is fine when they come from the pilgrim who’s a professional poet, but no so much coming from a religious scholar. Some of the characters from Hyperion don’t get as much of a look-in this time around, and there’s also a fair amount of religious/metaphysical/philosophical meandering, which I could see putting some people off.

None of this, however, detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book. The Fall Of Hyperion is an excellent novel and a worthy sequel to Hyperion, most importantly because it gives the reader the conclusion that Hyperion so frustratingly lacked.

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks (2000) 403 p.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture series is supposedly one of the modern science fiction must-reads, so I’d been meaning to look into it for a while. It’s one of those series that takes place in a shared universe, with each book standing alone, but I still would have preferred to start at the beginning, with 1987’s Consider Phlebas. But I don’t exactly have a lot of choice when buying used books from Vietnamese beach towns, so Look To Windward it was.

The Culture society is a highly advanced spacefaring race, largely living in orbital ringworlds. It’s a post-scarcity society, which means technology has been developed to the point where poverty has been eradicated and nobody works – essentially a utopia. The Culture is ruled by “Minds,” benevolent artificial intelligences. Look To Windward is mostly set on the orbital world of Masaq, and deals with an emissary from the civilisation of Chel, who has come to Masaq with the hope of persuading a Chelgrian exile to return home.

The problem with this book was that, for the first half, it lacked a sense of urgency or importance. In a stunning galactic space opera, where Banks is constantly pointing the reader’s head towards this or that amazing sight, an emissary speaking to an exile is quite humdrum and failed to grab my attention.

It’s only halfway through the book that the reader discovers the emissary’s mission is merely a cover story, and that his real purpose on Masaq is far more important and world-changing. That injected some life into things, and I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first.

Nonetheless, it still felt fairly aimless as a novel, more of a collection of ideas, concepts and characters than a true story. This is a very common problem with science fiction novels. Banks’ prose is also quite florid at times, another common problem, although I’d say he’s still a step above most sci-fi writers in ourely technical terms. But by the end, I’d say I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t flat-out recommend Look To Windward, but I certainly plan to read a few other Culture novels.

Look To Windward at The Book Depository

Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell (1933) 240 p.

I read both 1984 and Animal Farm in high school and found the first to be quite tedious while the second was quite good, and I read a number of Orwell’s essays in university which led me to believe that he’s one of those writers who is better at producing non-fiction than fiction. This belief was confirmed in Down And Out In Paris And London, which is both “an excellent book and a valuable social document,” as one 1930s reviewer put it.

Obviously Orwell was no slouch when it came to writing fiction, either, but his non-fiction is such a rare and beautiful thing: articulate, readable, intelligent and witty. He writes about his time spent as a dishwasher in Paris and his time as a homeless tramp in London. Neither of these experiences sounds particularly interesting, yet Orwell makes them so, drawing them in clear and precise terms with his remarkable command of English and sprinkling the text with his comments on the injustice, cruelty and pointlessness of the things he witnesses. In England, for example, the state provides what tramps call ‘spikes’ – free but prison-like boarding houses – but tramps are not provided with any useful work there, and are not permitted to stay in the same one each night, which sends them trekking across the countryside to the next spike like “so many Wandering Jews.” In Paris, he marvels at the fact that kitchen workers essentially live a life of slavery: they work sixteen or seventeen hours a day, and barely have enough time to sleep, let alone find another job or educate themselves, so they are forced to work as kitchen hands for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to see Orwell’s socialist beliefs in their crucible, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a world that no longer exists (although I suppose the extent to which our society has improved is up for debate).

Down And Out In Paris And London is a brilliant piece of writing, and I now intend to seek out the rest of Orwell’s other non-fiction works.

“You seem to know a lot about stars.”
“Not a great lot. I know a bit, though. I got two letters from the Astronomer Royal thanking me for writing about meteors. Now and again I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show; it doesn’t cost anything to use your eyes.”
“What a good idea! I should never have thought of it.”
“Well, you got to take an interest in something. It don’t follow that because a man’s on the road he can’t think of anything but tea and two-slices.”
“But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things – things like stars – living this life?”
“Screeving, you mean? Not neccesarily. It don’t need turn you into a bloody rabbit – that is, not if you set your mind to it.”
“It seems to have that effect on most people.”
“Of course. Look at Paddy – a tea-swilliing old moocher, only fit to scrounge for fag-ends. That’s the way most of them go. I despise them. But you don’t need get like that. If you’ve got any education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life.”
“Well, I’ve found just the contrary,” I said. “It seems to me that when you take a man’s money away he’s fit for nothing from that moment.”
“No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and ideas. You just got to say to yourself, ‘I’m a free man in here-‘ he tapped his forehead, “-and you’re all right.”

– From “Down And Out In Paris And London,” by George Orwell

For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940) 440 p.

I was in the mood to read some Hemingway recently, since my indefinite overseas trip wasn’t going very well and I was consoling myself with the thought that I was, at least, doing something – I was out of Perth, in foreign countries, living off the money I’d saved and not working. I felt like reading something like-minded, about lazy expats in France in the 20’s. Unfortunately Chris was reading The Sun Also Rises himself, so I settled on For Whom The Bell Tolls, which is not like-minded at all. Rather than being about a bunch of lazy rich Americans getting drunk in France and Spain, it’s about an American dynamiteer working with a group of guerillas in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War. It’s accordingly far more serious, with characters ruminating on death and life and love, which wasn’t quite what I was going for.

Not that it’s a bad book – indeed, it’s considered one of his finest. It covers four days in the war, during which the American protagonist Robert Jordan is assigned the task of blowing up a bridge in sync with a heavy assault on fascist positions. I’ve commented before that I think Hemingway was better at writing short stories than novels, and the best bits of writing in For Whom The Bell Tolls are vignettes: Pilar describing the systematic slaughter of the fascists in her village, Jordan recalling his father’s suicide, the desparate last stand atop a hillside as a fellow band of partisans are ambushed.

It’s stronger in the second half than the first, and while there are some great moments, I didn’t absolutely love it. I think I like the idea of reading Hemingway more than actually doing so. Like Kurt Vonnegut, he’s an author everybody else loves, but whom I don’t quite seem to appreciate on the same level. I can appreciate his skill as an author, and he has several short stories I think are fantastic, but ultimately I rarely like his minimalist writing style. It works very well when describing moments of great emotional significance, but for everything else it’s just dull to read. I prefer my prose to be carefully gilded, as evidenced by my favourite author being David Mitchell.

I’ve now moved on to reading Down And Out In Paris And London, by George Orwell, which is doing a better job of satisfying my desire to be inspired to a life of living abroad, even if it means taking crummy jobs and living on the poverty line. George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway were both expatriates in Paris in the 1920s and were both present at the Spanish Civil War; Hemingway as a journalist and Orwell as a combatant. And they were both internationally renowned authors by the 1950s. I wonder if they ever met?

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June 2010