Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: The Fall of Hyperion

The Fall of Hyperion The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**This review contains spoilers for both "Fall of Hyperion" and "Hyperion." There will be a spoiler warning before they begin.

As I mentioned in my review of "Hyperion," I immediately picked this up after finishing the first one. There's no way to read a novel that amazing that ends on that kind of unresolved note and not pick up the sequel. Sadly, "Fall of Hyperion" is not quite as good as its predecessor (but they rarely are, I suppose). I wanted to immediately tear into it, but the beginning is a slog, setting up what feels like already-established political maneuvering, introducing a character whose existence is still questionably justifiable in my mind, making established characters wander aimlessly around in a desert storm, and refusing to immediately address any of my burning questions. At almost exactly the halfway point, though, things pick up - and go from zero to sixty in the course of a chapter.

The second half of the book is intricate and surprising and, at times, mind-blowing. The world-building that Simmons did over the course of "Hyperion" and the slow political set-up at the beginning of this story explode into a truly unexpected (well, for me, at least) galactic story that broadens and deepens the world, and changes it fundamentally, while tying even the smallest details back to the core story (although, at times, it seems like too many throwback details, a few convenient connections that don't seem to add any meaning). Simmons did a wonderful job connecting the worldbuilding to the unfolding story; each step in one direction allows room to move in the other. And while Hyperion was more about character, Fall of Hyperion is much more about the world in which these characters live, and that allows for the introduction of many kinds of characters and aspects of the world that we couldn't see through the pilgrims' eyes, like Ousters and AI.

In the end, I was left questioning a few decisions - like why there was ever a second version of Keats; it didn't feel necessary story-wise - and suspicious of how neatly all the loose ends tied together, but ultimately (finally) satisfied by the scope and complexity of the ending. If the first book was a lock with each pin falling into place, this was like watching a convoluted machine get put together piece by piece, with no idea of its eventual function until the last cogs are set. Overall, it's not as solid a piece of work as "Hyperion," but it's a strong follow-up that is both true to and expands on the original.

My summary follows. Spoilers abound!

When we last left our pilgrims, they were singing their way down the yellow brick road toward the Time Tombs to meet the Shrike. Only when they get there, the Shrike's not there. They search each tomb a couple of times, then settle down, and then - oh so foolishly, as anyone who's ever consumed media could tell you - they split up.

Interspersed between the pilgrims' chapters is a character I certainly didn't expect to see: John Keats. No, not the original one. And not quite the one that Brawne Lamia gets to know in the first book, either. He's a second incarnation of Lamia's John, and to keep a low profile, he goes by Joseph Severn (aka Keats' best friend in his original life - he's not very good at the low-profile thing). We learn that Severn's dreams follow the journey of the pilgrims, and so he knows essentially exactly what the reader knows about their journey. Because of this, he's an asset to Gladstone, CEO of the Hegemony, who reveals that the AI government discovered and passed along the identities of citizens whose requests from the Shrike had the potential to change the course of the Hegemony's war. This whole part of the book moves at a glacial pace, taking more than its share of time to establish Severn's identity as a kind of human-AI meld, the reasons he's still alive (though I'm still not clear about that), and his role as Gladstone's informant/reporter on the pilgrims.

When the pilgrims' stories finally take off, they are picked off by the Shrike, one by one. Hoyt dies, but through the cruciform is re-born - but as Father Dure, whose cruciform Hoyt had also carried on his body. Silenus returns to the City of Poets and in one day, in a frenzy of writing, almost completes his Cantos - and is met by the Shrike, who puts him on the torture tree. Brawne Lamia gets a permanent hook-up to the datumsphere where she is reunited with her version of Keats and converses with the AI who is Keats's parent (and who promptly re-kills her version of Keats). The Consul uses his magic carpet to fly back to his ship, in hopes that he can stow Rachel safely away in a cryochamber before she de-ages completely. Kassad finds Moneta, who takes him through time and space to fight the Shrike. Sol is alone with Rachel (and, briefly, the Templar - who he and the Consul found wandering among the Tombs, but who is clearly not well and dies quickly), and at the moment when she should de-age entirely, the Shrike visits him and asks for his daughter - and Sol gives her up, because his recurring dream has recently changed: in the dream, when God demands he sacrifice Rachel, she says to him that she wants him to do it.

During all of this, the new Keats is watching Gladstone maneuver the Hegemony into this war over Hyperion. Based on information she received from the AI conglomerate, she has learned that this war with the Ousters - which is precipitated by the Hegemony bringing Hyperion into the fold - is necessary for the Hegemony to even have a chance of surviving in the future. But suddenly, the war takes a drastic turn: thousands of Ouster ships turn out to be almost right on top of the Hegemony, when they should have been many systems away. Planets are destroyed.

New Keats, though, has been trapped on the AI re-creation of Old Earth, and is dying of tuberculosis. He's there because he learned the great secret behind this war: the AI are behind every step of it. The ships attacking the Hegemony are not Ouster ships, but AI ships. The AI have been in communication with a god that they have created in the future, but can speak back to them through time. This god, in the future, is fighting with a human-created god, and the Shrike is the AI god's messenger. The human god (who is composed of three parts) may have sent a messenger back, too - and maybe it's Keats? I'm actually not sure about that part. He discovers that the AI don't have a homeworld; their 'core,' as it were, is the entire system of gates between worlds, and they use the humans' brains as processors. As an aside, we also learn that the AI were behind the destruction of Old Earth - the "accident" that destroyed it wasn't an accident, but they managed to transport the planet into a different system. Their 'recreation' is the original planet itself. Keats, after dying, is able to travel into a new and strange aspect of the datumsphere to Hyperion, where he saves baby Rachel from the Shrike and is able to briefly talk with Brawne Lamia.

At this point, the Consul has left Hyperion at Gladstone's request and is meeting with the Ousters. Once there, he is put on trial for the murder of the Ousters who gave him the device that would open the Time Tombs (turns out the device was a fake, though; they were testing him). His sentence: not to die, but to live and to help the galaxy recover from his actions. As soon as this happens, Gladstone's right-hand man launches an attack based on Keats' new information: he orders his men to simultaneously destroy every single portal in existence, completely disabling instantaneous travel between worlds, killing and dooming many, but also saving them from AI control.

On Hyperion, Brawne Lamia goes to rescue Martin Silenus. She finds out that the torture tree is actually a chamber in one of the Time Tombs, and everyone on the tree is unconscious on the floor with the same kind of hyperlink cable attached to their heads as was attached to hers. Their torture is real, but entirely inside their brains. To rescue him, she must confront the Shrike, and with some advice from Moneta and some magical nonsense where she walks on air, she defeats it. Oh, also: Kassad has died at this point.

Moneta also appears to Sol, carrying baby Rachel (who she picked up from Keats), and it is revealed that Moneta is, in fact, adult Rachel. She, Sol, and baby Rachel must use the newly-activated Time Tombs to travel into the future, where Sol will raise her once more, and she will become the warrior who keeps the Shrike in check throughout time. Several of the Time Tombs have active portals (but not the AI kind), now; the time-travel one opens only to some and one opens onto Old Earth.

Now that the portals are gone and the only way to get between worlds is by a long trip through space, the Consul begins a long humanitarian journey to begin re-building connections between worlds.

It's a fairly satisfying ending (again, with some moments that are slightly *too* satisfying and coincidental), and the action in the second half of the book rescues it from the drudgery from the first half. I would love to talk about this more with someone who has read both books. I've been meaning to decompose each pilgrim's meeting(s) with the Shrike - how do their interactions with it relate to the request they would have asked or did ask of it? What's going on with this whole God situation, especially the Empathy messenger sent back through time? What are we supposed to make of the Templars throughout all of this?

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Hyperion

Hyperion Hyperion by Dan Simmons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This may be cheesy, but Hyperion may be one of the best-written SF novels in existence. Its format and a good deal of its subject matter are repurposed from classic literature; most notably, it is written in the format of "The Canterbury Tales" and deals heavily with themes of the poems (and life) of John Keats (one of his most famous poems is also called "Hyperion"). This is a rare (and perhaps unique) book that makes me want to immediately read the rest of the series, but also become a scholar of classical lit, and probably also get a doctorate in genre fiction. I want to dedicate an entire course to this book. I want to have written it myself.

As in "The Canterbury Tales," the story is composed of six stories within a frame story that is a pilgrimage, with each of the shorter narratives told by one of the pilgrims. Simmons masterfully weaves these six stories together and embeds them carefully in their frame, so that as you read each story it feels like another tumbler in a lock has fallen into place. Each story is fascinating and readable on its own, and each has a different tone and genre. There's a private-eye noir, a slow family story, an anthropologist's exploration, a love story, a war story, and a debaucherous life of an artist. All six of these pilgrims (the soldier, the priest, the poet, the consul, the scholar, and detective), along with a templar, are making the journey to the planet Hyperion to visit the Shrike - a horrific monster whose origins and temporal status are both unknown, who is also said to grant the wish of one pilgrim of every seven.

None of them know exactly why they've been chosen for this final pilgrimage, but they do know that humanity's galactic government - the Hegemony - is about to go to war with a faction of humans who broke away hundreds of years before and have since evolved into something that may not quite be human, and that it seems to be because of Hyperion. There is a fear that the Shrike and the Time Tombs where it dwells may be re-orienting to the flow of time as the rest of the world experiences it, and no one is sure what will come of that. Hyperion loads itself chock full of questions, questions that are baked into the core of the world-building and the characters, and the true joy of the book is uncovering more about this world, and how it might work.

The one true flaw of "Hyperion," though, is that the final tumbler never falls; there is never a satisfying resolution, none of the truly pressing, global questions are answered. There is a poetic-ness to the ending of the story, but there is no fulfillment. It's a masterpiece of high science fiction, and of literature, and each of the short stories in themselves are a delight to read, but while the structure of the book feels like it should be a solid, complete work, the unanswered questions demand a sequel - and there is one, and that review will be coming shortly, and it will not be as good.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Savannah Liars Tour, by Will McIntosh

"Savannah Liars Tour," by Will McIntosh. Art by Galen Dara. From Lightspeed Magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams. Featured on io9.

This week, I read "Savannah Liars Tour" by Will McIntosh. I heard about it through one of my favorite websites, io9, which features one short story each month from the current issue of Lightspeed Magazine. I've heard great things about Lightspeed - it won a Hugo in 2014 (plus four nominations), and its short stories often get nominated for SF short fiction awards. The current editor, John Joseph Adams, recently edited a volume I've been meaning to read: the first ever Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.

(A brief aside: I've had an obsession with the Best American series since high school, when I read one of their Best American Essays collections. Each Best American series collects either short fiction or essays from a particular genre; generally one person is the series editor, and they have a guest edit each volume. I've purchased almost every Best American book I've ever found at my favorite used book store, more than . There's a Best American collection for everything, from essays to horror to science writing. But there wasn't a collection for sci-fi and fantasy until 2015?! Atrocious.)

Either way, for better or for worse, I've heard great things about Lightspeed but nothing about Will McIntosh in particular, and nothing about the story - I'm trying to add a smattering of short stories, both recent and archived, from a variety of sci-fi mags, to my reading app each week, but I don't generally read the blurb so I'm always surprised.

The title of the story captures possibly the most charming and memorable part of the story for me. The main character (Ben)'s dead lover, Delilah, was in her life the tour guide for the titular tour. Her job: tell outrageous but entertaining lies about the town of Savannah to tourists on the trolley. She never tells the same lie twice - Ben can attest to this because he takes her tour frequently before approaching her. The brief yarns we hear from her in the corners of the story make me want to hop onto the trolley with her, and add some much-needed character to the story.

Because this is largely one of those Idea stories characteristic of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. The author has an Idea, either for a cool world or a particular story frame or character they want to use, and then add the rest of the story elements to serve that Idea; everything else comes second to whatever the Idea is. Of course, that's not a bad thing, per se, if it's done well and the characters aren't flat and the story and the world-building work together. Nor are these stories unique to SFF - I think they're more obvious in those genres, though, because SFF places much more emphasis on world-building (obviously), and because navel-gazing description of a realistic idea could summarize most short stories in the New Yorker and is therefore a canonized 'literary' style, while navel-gazing description of an SFF idea reads as indulgent at best and infodump at worst.

I'm not sure if the Iiea here is the SF device or the plot; one is slaved to the other, but I'm not sure which. The device: people can speak to any dead person, but only if they pay exorbitant fees to go into cryogenic sleep. The plot: Ben is torn between his dead lover, Delilah, and his wife, Jillian. We know almost nothing about these characters, except that Ben keeps visiting Delilah, Jillian doesn't want him to, and Delilah delights in lying (and is dead). The conflict in this story feels artificial or contrived - exactly like McIntosh had an Idea for a story and forced everything in the story to revolve around that idea. The characters' wants and existences didn't matter beyond the conflict of desires that propelled the story forward. We literally get no details about the characters, and few details about the world, beyond what is directly necessary for this story to work.

For me, this is a fatal flaw. It wasn't like it was unpleasant to read, but I was distinctly un-wowed by this, and was surprised it made it to publication. To me, it read like stories I've read as a slush reader for an SF/F/horror magazine and passed on. Sure, it has some lovely turns of phrase and an interesting premise. But your world, your characters, and your message all need to take a step beyond the premise to be interesting and compelling. There's a lot of opportunity in a story where death is kind of a nebulous concept to delve into deeper topics, but instead the story hinges on what feels like a cheap twist. Overall, I'd say this is 2 stars (which, according to the Goodreads metric, means 'it was ok' - and it was). 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Review: The Circle

The Circle The Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The Circle" is a book that has gotten a lot of buzz. Several schools made it required reading for incoming freshmen. It's getting a movie starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, and John Boyega. It's written by Dave Eggers, whose short stories I have read and enjoyed in the past, and who is generally an acclaimed author. And it's a literary novel with a sci-fi genre coating, which usually appeals to me, so I took it on with some enthusiasm.

Mae Holland begins work at a giant company called The Circle that is an amalgamation of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and any other site you can think of - an account with the company unifies all of a person's online accounts and ties them to their real names, which has the effect of making the entire internet polite. But despite the grandiose, heartfelt, well-intentioned projects spearheaded by the company, something feels wrong to Mae. She believes that the company's philosophy - and I'm paraphrasing, but it's generally 'knowledge solves all problems, so if everyone knows everything, then all problems will go away' - is right, but she doesn't understand why they question her initial lack of participation in company social media, or post about her occasional kayaking trips. It feels, at first, invasive.

This book wants very much to be the modern "1984." And, on the surface level, it is: it's a dystopian near future concerned with the privacy, independence, and rights of the individual citizen under the power of a powerful super-entity that controls behavior (though in this case, instead of hiding information from the masses, they share everything with everyone). The Circle's slogans, including "Sharing is Caring," are deliberately constructed to mirror the infamous "War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is Strength." Mae's initial resistance to and eventual complicity with the Circle's endeavors follows Winston's path. Even her relationship with Kalden, who urges her to break free of the Circle's grasp and work against them, is similar to Winston's relationship with Julia.

The striking, damning difference, though, is that "1984" contains compelling arguments against totalitarian government and obfuscation, while "The Circle" simply asserts that voluntary surveillance and always-on internet culture is bad, because privacy is good, with no explanation as to why privacy is good beyond 'surveillance is bad.' I'm not saying I disagree with Eggers, here - I think he's generally right, that people are too willing to hand over freedoms for convenience, that people should be able to opt out and increasingly are unable to do so, that privacy is a good thing. But he relies entirely on my a priori idea that privacy is good, and his few attempts at conveying *why* it's good are flimsy and shallow. Mae likes her private kayak trips because they make her feel connected to the world, yeah, but she likes keeping up her internet presence for the same reason. (We're supposed to believe that the former is more fulfilling because while doing the latter, Mae often feels a gaping emptiness inside her, but you can feel that gulf sadness and unfulfillment no matter where you are or what you're doing, and Mercer, her anti-tech ex, tries to go off the grid and tells Mae that the Circle is bad because it doesn't let you opt out or have real privacy, and suffers for his attempts, but this is again the circular logic (pun fully intended) Eggers uses: surveillance is bad because privacy is good because surveillance is bad.

My other huge gripe with this book is how whiny it sounds. It's saying the same things that anyone who doesn't 'get' technology says, a litany of complaints and accusations with little evidence - we're addicted to technology, there's no such thing as privacy anymore, we spend all our time staring at screens. So many screens. Every time Mae gets promoted or funneled into a new program, she gets a new display screen added to her computer; I think she totals 8 by the end, and each scene is increasingly absurd. But it's not an effective, message-bearing absurd. Instead, it reminds me of parents who grumble that their perfectly normal children spend too much time online and not enough connecting with people or reading books (not understanding that many younguns use the internet primarily *for* connecting, for which it is an effective tool, or reading and research). Because regardless of whether there's truth to Eggers' and grumbly parents' complaints (and I do feel there is truth there), and even considering that this is a dystopian satire where things are purposely taken to their logical extremes, the fact that it feels driven by pathos instead of logos and the sheer amount of absurd and ironic but repetitive sequences of 'this technology is presented as good but is obviously an atrocity' make it feel like we're reading a rant, a litany of Eggers' personal annoyances and nightmares.

(Also, because the progression to absurdity follows a pathos instead of a logos or ethos, many of the doomsday-inducing scenarios fall apart with a little thought. Yes, again, it's satire and exaggeration, but it's tough to swallow some of the bigger assumptions the novel makes - not the least of which is that the culture and dominance of technology in America will take hold in the exact same way globally.)

Despite its logical and tonal problems, the book does work, to a degree, as an indictment against a sometimes mandatory plugged-in culture that is prevalent in some circles (again, the pun is definitely intended). I think more now about *why* I want to post things, and what I gain versus what the company whose platform I'm using gains. And that's really Eggers' point, so it's successful there. Still, I'd give my firstborn and probably most of my rights to privacy to work at a campus like the Circle's. And its prose is strong, if incessant and not particularly beautiful. While I read, it was a page-turner, but the minute I put the book down I didn't want to ever pick it up again because it didn't give me anything new after the first hundred pages.

Overall, it's a too-long tirade against technology, but a well-written one that has some valid points and definitely instilled a bit of fear or caution in me.

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Saturday, January 2, 2016

Adult Children of Alien Beings, by Dennis Danvers

"Adult Children of Alien Beings," by Dennis Danvers, edited by Ellen Datlow, illustrated by Chris Buzelli, and published on

This is the first story I've ever tried to review on its own, and it's proving a bit harder than I anticipated. There's less to work with, less context, less content. I should be doing many more of these - I've begun using a wonderful app called Pocket, which allows me to send short stories (or news articles) from any of my favorite sites to my phone for later reading. Short stories are perfect for fitting into those moments waiting for the bus or waiting in line at the checkout (two things I spend a lot of time doing), and since I've been trying to read more short stories lately, this is absolutely the perfect app for my needs.

But enough about apps! We're here for a short story!

"Adult Children of Alien Beings" was a story with a lot of promise in the premise but a confused tone that had me constantly tripping over conflict between what was happening in the story and the narrator's reaction (or lack thereof). Told in first person, it's a story of an aging man, Stan, who seeks out the story behind his parents, who he describes as not "like your parents," not "like the ones in the Mother's Day cards and Father's Day cards." He proceeds to describe them in more detail; they sound like typical people who happen to be in love and have some idiosyncrasies that might be odd, but their daily lives definitely fall within a standard deviation or so of normal. Their deaths, though, are slightly suspicious; they both fell into an "abyss" in New Mexico when their younger son (Stan) was 18. Also suspicious are their origins, as Stan discovers all of their papers are forged, prior to his older brother Ollie's birth certificate. And when Stan seeks help to find their history, an expert tells him that they were most definitely aliens, and refers him to the titular coping group.

The attempt to convince the reader of the supernatural when evidenced with only the natural reoccurs throughout the story. There is certainly supposed to be some doubt - after all, the claims are outrageous. But I was never convinced, and I was never convinced that Stan himself was convinced, either. In fact, it was hard to tell how the first-person narrator really felt about anything, except occasionally in retrospect. He states things matter-of-factly, seemingly taking them at face value, which he does - unless he doesn't, which happens sometimes, but the reader is never informed of that until he says it out loud. He doesn't react. And between the difficulty ascertaining exactly what the narrator feels about the strange things thrown in front of him and the general predictability of the story (and what is true versus what isn't), it was hard to wrangle a foothold into the story, to care about what happened.

In the end, it wasn't important whether Stan's parents were or were not aliens. What matters instead is that he learned about himself and reached out to others, which felt as trite as it sounds. There were moments, though, of pretty prose, and the story moved at a steady clip, so it wasn't a dull read. I also appreciate an SF story with an amount of ambiguity to it, and this had ambiguity in spades (perhaps too much for some readers). And although Stan's parents weren't all that weird, the moments describing their lives together - his mother's paint-by-number picture where she switched all the numbers, their obsessive love of peppermint - illustrated to me an otherworldly kind of love, a mutually compatible weirdness that I truly enjoyed.

Rating: 2.5/5

The author, Dennis Danvers, is also a VA resident! Way to represent my home state!