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New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) 613 p.

new york 2140

Kim Stanley Robinson’s last novel, Aurora, was both a culmination of themes he’d explored for the latter half of his writing career and a sober-minded skewering of one of science fiction’s sacred cows. First Mars in the Mars trilogy, then the rest of the solar system in 2312, then to the stars: that’s how science fiction readers expect the future of the human race to play out, and that’s how we thought Robinson’s books would go. Except Aurora very wonderfully broke the rules. Robinson used his take on the generation spaceship story to propose that colonising other star systems wouldn’t work, that such a venture was doomed to failure – and just what are we trying to get away from, anyway? That’s what made it not just his best novel, but one of the best and most important science fiction novels of the last few decades.

Thus it makes sense that New York 2140 brings us back down to Earth – metaphorically, anyway, since neither this nor any of his other novels are set in a shared universe, and in fact space travel is never mentioned at all throughout this book. The ice caps have melted, the sea level has risen, and Manhattan has been transformed into a “SuperVenice,” with its streets and avenues transformed into canals. New York 2140 takes us through a few years in the lives of the varied residents of the original MetLife building on 23rd Street – cleverly chosen because the building was modelled on the Campanile in Venice. There’s Franklin, a hot-shot Wall Street trader; Charlotte, a social and community worker; Amelia, a sort of futuristic YouTube-esque web star; Gen Octaviasdottir, a police chief; Roberto and Stefan, a pair of 12-year-old orphans who live a picaresque life as scavenging “water rats;” Vlade, the building’s Slavic super; and Mutt and Jeff, a pair of shambolic middle-aged coders whose mysterious disappearance from the building in the opening passage sets the plot in motion.

All of this seems like a great set-up for a novel, and for the first third or so I found New York 2140 very engaging: a more memorable cast of characters than Robinson usually populates his books with, an interesting future vision of a city we’re all familiar with, and a mystery-driven plot to kickstart it all. But my interest began to wane halfway through, and towards the end I was checking how many pages left until I was done with it.

If I had to put my finger on exactly why New York 2140 doesn’t work, it’s because it’s clearly not quite the book Robinson wanted to write. He mentioned recently on the Coode Street podcast that he went to his editor and said he wanted to write a book about the global financial system. His editor said no, nobody would ever read that – then suggested he set it in the future, in the drowned New York briefly featured in the novel 2312. And so Robinson did, which meant he had to render the society of 2140 as not very different from the society of 2017.

Which is fine in some ways. I have no doubt that human society, if it’s still around in the 28th century, will be unrecognisable to us today – but I had no problem when the starfarers of Aurora returned to Earth in that century and it felt more or less like society right now, because that’s not what the point of Aurora was. I have much more of a problem when the still-corrupt and capitalist-driven society of 2140 is reformed implausibly easily by a bunch of Wall Street traders, community workers, coders and a celebrity after a bunch of repeated discussions about the 2008 financial crisis, about which they all seem strangely well-informed. (How much do you, for example, know about the Long Depression of the late 19th century?)

That seems like a small thing to pick on, but it’s emblematic of the greater flaw in New York 2140: it’s two books trying to be one. Robinson could have written a great book about a flooded future New York, or he could (and should) have written a great book about the economic semi-feudalism we live under here in 2017. This novel suffers from trying to be both. Which is a shame, because after Aurora I’d like to see Robinson – an author who’s always covered many topics, usually in the same book – write another single-minded, narrowly-focused deconstruction of a perceived truism. Maybe next time.

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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)

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