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Removed for publication – you can read the story, now renamed “Flight,” in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #43.
The Rise Of Endymion by Dan Simmons (1997) 709 p.
The first book I read this year was Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which in turn led to The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion, together comprising what I believe is one of the most well-written and compulsively readable science fiction adventures of our age. I really grew to love these books and the fascinating universe they contain, so it was a bit of a bummer that the last book fell apart.
The first three books consisted largely of high adventure, intergalactic politics, epic warfare and apolcayptic social collapse, and very slightly of things like religion and metaphysics and philosophy. The Rise of Endymion, unfortunately, flips that formula around. It continues the tale of Aenea, the child of Brawne Lamia destined to become a new messiah, chronicling her rise to greatness from the point of view of her bodyguard and lover Raul Endymion. It is, essentially, a gospel, and most of the book reads like one. It’s not that it’s a poorly-written or overly preachy or even a shallow gospel, but it is boring, and I had no desire to read it. I realised two-thirds of the way through that I wasn’t enjoying reading it, and was counting the pages until it was over, which is not something I ever thought I’d be doing in the Hyperion series.
It has its moments. Raul’s journey down the world-spanning River Tethys is great (yet over almost as soon as it begins), and the climax is gripping. But the rest of the book is tedious and extremely bloated. In particular, a 200+ page visit to a Tibetan-themed planet almost groans under the weight of all the superfluous geographic worldbuilding and endless background characters it must endure. (You can tell this book was written the same year Seven Years In Tibet and Kundun were released, when the Western obsession with Tibetan exoticism was at its zenith.) Likewise, there are wearying descriptions of the baroque splendour of the Vatican and its rituals. The entire book is, essentially, Simmons sinking into a whirpool of miscellanous religious iconography. He doesn’t do so without purpose or objective merit, and I can see how this book would appeal to some, but personally I found it an unenjoyable ride.
Overall, The Rise of Endymion is an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise excellent science fiction series. Which is a shame, but honestly, three hits out of four isn’t bad in this arena.
Endymion by Dan Simmons (1996) 563 p.
I’d heard that the latter books in Simmons’ Cantos series weren’t as good as the first two (the excelllent Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion) so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself thoroughly drawn into this book, reading huge stretches at a time and finishing it in a few days.
Endymion takes place 274 years after The Fall of Hyperion. Following Gladstone’s destruction of the farcaster (teleporter) network, the hundreds of planets of the Hegemony were cut off from each other and plunged into a new Dark Age. Only recently has the “Pax,” a Catholic Church theocracy, begun to once again unite the scattered worlds. The story begins with Raul Endymion, a 27-year old hunting guide on the familiar world of Hyperion, killing a man in self-defence and being sentenced to death for it. Mysteriously rescued and taken to a different continent, he is charged by his benefactor (a returning character from the previous books) with rescuing Aenea, a foreshadowed messiah who will be emerging from the Time Tombs in two days.
The thing about the Cantos is that it has a very complex higher plot, involving AIs and time travel and fate and destiny and all that jazz. Which I never really grasped – like the climax of Neuromancer, I didn’t quite wrap my head around what happened at the end of The Fall of Hyperion. But, again like Neuromancer, I didn’t really care, because the “lower” plot is very enjoyable and comprises the vast majority of the book. Endymion has a few sections talking about the “Godhead” and the Machine God and the role of love and belief and the nature of the universe, etc, but for the most part it’s a fantastic science fiction adventure tale. The bulk of the story involves Raul, Aenea and their android companion A. Bettik (almost a Jim the Negro analog) escaping from their Pax pursuers by rafting down the River Tethys, a river that once ran through two hundred worlds thanks to the farcaster portals (which Aenea can somehow reactivate). Since the Hegemony is one of the most awesome science fiction universes ever written, in my opinion, I was more than happy with this story of high adventure on a dozen different worlds. Half the book is told from Raul’s perspective, and the other half from Father de Soya, a Pax warrior-priest charged with capturing them, who has his own companions in the form of a few surviving spec ops troops from the failed capture attempt on Hyperion. Simmons writes de Soya not as a heartless antagonist, or a demonised religious caricature, but a believable and sympathetic character – in fact, while reading the Raul sections I was rooting for him to escape, and while reading de Soya’s sections I was rooting for him to capture them. If you can make a reader do that, you’re doing something right.
My favourite book, on the whole, is still The Fall of Hyperion – a brilliantly conceived and executed brink-of-war, end-of-the-world, high stakes space opera. And if I had to pick, I’d probably say Hyperion is slightly better than Endymion. But it’s still a great addition to a great series, and I look forward to reading the final book.
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
Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) 510 p.
Dune is ostensibly a classic work of science fiction, but it actually contains about as much science fiction as Star Wars. It’s set in a galaxy ruled by a sprawling feudal empire, with Dukes and Houses and serfs and fiefdoms. A historical war against artificial intelligences has resulted in a law against advanced computers and technology. Personal force-field shields mean people fight with swords and knives rather than guns. I spent much of the book wondering why Herbert didn’t just make it a flat-out fantasy novel.
I suppose it is a good fantasy novel, as fantasy novels go, but I wasn’t much in the mood for one at the moment. Or ever, really – I think I’ve outgrown them. They’re too simplistic. I have no interest in reading about pure good versus pure evil, a dichotomy which Dune was often leaning towards in spite of the protagonist’s fears that he might inadvertantly launch a bloody jihad. Take the antagonists, for example: the cruel and evil House Harkonnen, which keeps slaves, encourages oppression, and is ruled over by a fat and corpulent Duke who also happens to be a pedophile. That’s just lazy. Nor do endless political machinations particularly intrigue me.
I know it’s unfair to compare this to the Wheel of Time series, since that was written twenty-five years later and was clearly ripping off Dune rather than the other way round, but that was the vibe I was getting. Which is bad, because Wheel of Time is bad. As well as the aforementioned political schemes and court intrigue, the’re another similar (identical, really) element that will be obvious to anyone who’s read both books: the Fremen and the Aiel. Both of them are hardcore, badass desert tribes with byzantine cultures who personify freedom and the joy of life; a modern take on the noble savage. And in both books the author repeatedly beats you about the head with how HARDCORE and BADASS they are. It’s a little weird. (It’s also further evidence that Robert Jordan never had an original idea in his head, as if we didn’t know that already).
For such a classic and renowned work of science fiction, I found Dune to be a disappointment. Oh well. At least the video game was awesome.
A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest (1977) 216 p.
More original than The Space Machine, which it was bundled together with in an omnibus, A Dream Of Wessex is a serious science fiction/romance novel about virtual reality and the subconscious.
It’s quite confusing for the first third or so, but it eventually becomes clear what is taking place: a group of scientists in the 1980s (the near future at the time of publication) have developed a machine that can project a shared virtual reality. They choose to “project” the future of England in the early 22nd century, a utopia, with the hope of discovering how that utopia was accomplished. Why a virtual reality projection of the future would be accurate – at all – I was never really clear on.
In any case, the projection is of south-west England, which has become an island after a series of earthquakes. It’s a peaceful, beautiful place, compared to the dystopic 1980s, in which terrorism is becoming more rampant in England and there are all manner of social and economic problems. It’s also here, however, that the book shows its age: England has become a socialist state absorbed into the Soviet bloc. (Also, North America has been taken over by Muslims. Maybe Christopher Priest is racist after all?)
The story largely revolves around the scientists in the projection who have become more devoted to it than they have to their real lives, and of how they must prevent the new project manager (who also happens to be the narrator’s possessive ex-boyfriend) from shutting it down or corrupting it. On the whole it was a fairly decent sci-fi story, but nothing amazingly gripping original; a completely different league from Priest’s science fiction masterpiece Inverted World.
The Space Machine by Christopher Priest (1976) 363 p.
This was a weird little book. It’s an effort by Priest to fuse together H.G. Wells’ two most famous novels, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, into a single shared universe. The story begins with the narrator, Edward Turnbull, meeting Amelia Fitzgibbon, the assistant to an inventor named William Reynolds. While the two of them are tinkering around with his time machine (which also transports people through space), they find themselves stranded on Mars, prior to the Martian invasion of Earth.
This Mars is depicted as Wells imagined it, with red plant life and a weak atmosphere, but with Priest’s own invention of a population of human slaves. The most interesting part of the novel is probably this middle section, where Edward and Amelia struggle to survive in the bleak cities of Mars over a period of many months.
Later, they manage to return to Earth by stowing away on the first Martian invasion projectile, fired from a long cannon supported by the slopes of Olympus Mons. Here the novel fuses more directly with the original work, as Edward and Amelia survive in southern England in the midst of the Martian invasion. They even meet the narrator of The War of the Worlds, identified as Mr. Wells.
Then it got a little stupid. Priest decided to tie the The Time Machine back into the story, and the trio return to Reynold’s laboratory to construct a new machine out of a bedstead. Then they fly around the countryside encased in the machine’s “attenuation field,” making them invisible and invincible, dropping grenades on the Martians’ tripods. This is a bizarre and wacky turn of events in a novel that was, despite everything, remaining relatively consistent and suspending my disbelief. It’s all pointless anyway, since the Martians are defeated the same way they are in the original novel, which I won’t spoil in case you’re one of the seven or eight people who haven’t heard about it.
I haven’t read The Time Machine (though I have seen the shitty movie) and I’ve only read an abridged version of The War of the Worlds, plus an excellent webcomic version that no longer seems to be online, so I can’t really compare The Space Machine to its forebears. Suffice to say that while it was somewhat entertaining, as science fiction goes, I’m not sure what the point was. The stories are similar in only the most basic of ways, and to merge them together seemed like a brief thought experiment that Priest forced into a novel that never should have been.
(Removed for publication)
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009) 431 p.
For somebody who hates science fiction so much, Margaret Atwood sure does write a lot of it. The Year of the Flood is a novel set in the same world, and involving many of the same characters, as her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. Featuring a bio-engineered apocalypse, a dystopic corporate state and rampant genetic engineering, it’s science fiction whether she likes it or not, and she should take heed from Michael Chabon and embrace the term rather than staring down her nose at it.
Oryx & Crake was a fantastic piece of writing. Snowman, a hermit clad in a baseball cap and bedsheet, lives a lonely and melancholy life on the American eastern seaboard, apparently the only survivor of a cataclysmic plague. Nearby is a society of humanlike beings called Crakers, who revere Snowman as a prophet or god. The bulk of the story is told through flashbacks detailing Snowman’s former life as Jimmy, growing up in a hyper-commercialised world ruled by corporations. In high school Jimmy befriends a boy called Glenn, who nicknames himself Crake, and who grows up to become a brilliant bioengineer. Disillusioned and disgusted by humanity, Crake creates a new race of people, and releases a plague to wipe out the old ones. He vaccinates Jimmy against this plague beforehand, allowing him to survive as the guardian of the Crakers.
One might wonder what he is guarding them against, but at the climax of the book Jimmy discovers three real humans camping on the beach nearby. As he ponders his role as a guardian and agonises over what he will do with them, the novel ends.
The Year of the Flood isn’t really a sequel; it takes place chronologically alongside Oryx & Crake, featuring two characters instead of one, but again utilising the flashback method of following them as they grow up. Ren and Toby are both former members of a religious group called God’s Gardeners, a peaceful vegetarian sect that cultivates a rooftop garden in the middle of the otherwise bleak and grimy city. Eventually they both leave the sect, but are reunited after the plague.
The problem with this book was that I couldn’t help but compare it to the much better Oryx & Crake. For much of the novel, I felt like I was reading a book that I’d already read, because essentially I was: same themes, same world, just different characters. (Ironically, the book improves quite a bit in the second half, when Jimmy and Crake enter as supporting characters; it is, after all, their story.) One of the things that made Oryx & Crake so great was the perfect sense of crushing loneliness, the feeling that Jimmy was the last true human being left alive, something that was only slightly compromised by the sudden arrival of others in the very last chapter. The Year of the Flood, on the other hand, has a post-apocalyptic world that seems scarcely less populated than it was before the plague, with strippers and ex-convicts and artists and scientists and nearly all of God’s Gardeners crossing paths, shooting at each other, and spying on Jimmy. It kind of spoils the sense of Snowman’s miserable solitude in Oryx & Crake to know that a bunch of random characters from The Year of the Flood are living just down the road. I’m not even talking about Ren and Toby; there’s a group of ex-scientists they meet who are living in some huts and farming sheep who warn them to steer clear of the crazy guy who sleeps in a tree and talks to himself. Lame. We also never get any indication how these seething multitudes of humanity managed to survive the plague.
The Year of the Flood is not a bad book. I don’t think a writer of Atwood’s talent is capable of writing a bad book, and if you read it without first reading Oryx & Crake perhaps you’ll really enjoy it. But it’s an unnecessary book, and one that, to some extent, dilutes the quality of an earlier and much better one. Atwood already told the story of this world: the story of Crake, who tried to remake the human race, the story of Snowman, who was left behind to protect this new breed, and the story of Oryx, the woman who was a symbol, or perhaps even a catalyst, for the failings and desires that set these events in motion.
Why, then, bother telling the story of a bunch of unrelated nobodies? If Atwood writes more novels set in the world of Snowman and the Crakers, perhaps this one will slot in better in retrospect. If not, it’s an odd and unwieldy companion to a superior book.
The Year of the Flood at The Book Depository