Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Dan Simmons’

The Abominable by Dan Simmons

April 9, 2014 5 comments

abominable-dan-simmons-01

The Abominable by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown & Co, 2013) is a “found manuscript” novel. As is required for a book of this type, there’s a prefatory frame in which our author goes to visit with an old man who was reputed to have been on one of the expeditions to the Antarctic in the 1930s. Some years after the man’s death, the author receives a collection of notebooks containing this story about an expedition organised in 1924 to find the body of a climber lost on Mount Everest. Courtesy of Simmons acting as an editor only, we’re therefore to suspend our disbelief as our first person narrator, Jacob (Jake) Perry tells how he met and then climbed with a Brit called Richard Davis Deacon, aka “the Deacon”, and a Frenchman Jean-Claude “J.C.” Clairoux, a guide from Chamonix. In fact we start off on the Matterhorn, where the threesome are refining their skills in the early 1920s just as news comes in that two climbers, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, are missing, presumed dead, trying to climb Everest. Perhaps surprisingly given that this is the British Hill, a German climber separately describes how two other climbers, one British, the other German or Austrian, were swept away in an avalanche. This proves to be the hook for the novel. The lost British climber is Lord Percival Bromley and his family want an expedition to recover his body (assuming him to be dead, of course). In turn, this requires our heroes to contact the German climber who has interesting things to say.

The real problem with this book is easy to state. It’s woefully overwritten. Simmons doesn’t just do detail. He does pages of exposition. Take as an example an early meeting with Lady Bromley. In the hands of an author prepared to listen to an editor, this would have been: the trio arrive at the stately mansion, meet the Lady, get the inside dope, agree the fee plus expenses to go to Everest, and get out of Dodge. This has a tour guide approach which tell us how big the place is, where the visiting royalty used to get out of their carriages, what the butler saw when Master Richard was younger, and so on. I’m not saying this is all uninteresting. But when we scale that approach up to all the scenes, you’d better be prepared for an awful lot of mountain climbing.

Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons

Now, in a sense, this fixation with the product of research would not matter if it was put in service to a plot which has great drive. But unless you suffer from vertigo when reading, this all starts in a somewhat low-key style. Yes, they are climbing and could fall off but, at the beginning of the book, we know that’s not going to happen. So being on top of the mountain is just an excuse to give us set-up plot information with a better view. When you look with a dispassionate eye, very little of interest happens during the first 250 pages of the book. Members of the political movement who will become the Nazis are met and later discussed (Hitler is in jail at this time). We have two mentions of yeti who may yet turn out to be the source of the book’s title. There’s practice climbing, and refinement of technique and equipment in Wales. And we get to meet Reggie who’s to accompany our three professional climbers as they use the search for a body as an excuse to try climbing to the top of Everest.

As we approach the two-thirds mark, we learn of the McGuffin. Yes, it’s up there somewhere, but no-one knows exactly what it is. On balance, I think it would have been better if our heroes had not subsequently discovered the nature of the McGuffin. It’s not so much the short-term impact that worries me. It’s the purpose to which the McGuffin is subsequently put. Because I prefer not to indulge in spoilers, I will not discuss how matters play out on Everest itself, or in the end chapters that follow the descent. Suffice it to say, I thought this particular piece of plotting absurd. Although it’s completely different, I’m reminded of The Hour of the Donkey by the magnificent Anthony Price. In that book, we’re given a contemporary explanation of the events which led the Germans to hold off their push against the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940. As a result, many trained soldiers were able to escape at Dunkirk. In other words, the author takes a minor historical mystery and creates a scenario in which the Germans do not consider it in their interests to push their numerical and strategic advantage. It’s a vey interesting piece of speculation. I reinforce the message that The Abominable is different in structure and form, almost all the action taking place in 1924 and 1925.

Personally, I was bored. Yes, there are some great episodes of daring-do as our climbers meet and overcome various climbing challenges, and the pace of the plot does improve slightly as we get closer to the end. But the denseness of the detail gets in the way of all efforts to generate thrills. Dan Simmons has set himself the task of writing a thriller, but then defanged it by taking too long to establish the nature of the antagonists. No matter how interesting it may be to learn about the climbing technique and technology of the 1920s, there comes a point when the reader just wishes something “exciting” would happen. It would not matter whether it was supernatural, just so long as it represented a threat other than falling off a bloody mountain. Yes, I got that frustrated! So I cannot in good conscience recommend The Abominable unless you treat Dan Simmons as a trusted brand and automatically read everything by him in the hope it will be good.

For other reviews of books by Dan Simmons, see:
Drood
Flashback
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz
Muse of Fire.

The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons

June 7, 2013 1 comment

The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz

In a macabre kind of way, it’s actually convenient to come back to this story at this time. Jack Vance has just died. This is saddening. I’ve been reading his work for as long as I’ve been alive. He was ninety-six when he died so had a few years start on me. I discovered him in the early 1960s and never looked back. He was a wonderful writer. A few years ago, in celebration of his contribution to fantasy, we had an outstanding anthology called Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. This was a book of highlights with some truly outstanding stories. One of them was The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2013). To give you an idea of just how good the story is, this limited hardcover edition was sold out almost as soon as the edition was announced. The combination of Dan Simmons and a Jack Vance theme was irresistible.

At this point, I need to rein in my own enthusiasm for a moment and assume you’ve never heard of Jack Vance and therefore could not care a fig that a modern author has revisited one of his worlds. It may even be possible you’ve never heard of Dan Simmons although that’s less likely if you have had any interest in science fiction, fantasy, horror and PI novels over the last twenty-four years. So let’s start with a clean slate and see where it takes us. The sequence we call the Dying Earth began with a short story in 1950. Like Topsy, this just grow’d into a sprawling sequence of novels describing the final days of Earth. As a planet, it has had an eventful history, first seeing the advance of technology and then the emergence of real magic. As the sun slowly loses its power, the population begins to fade away with no new children coming along. People fall back into simpler patterns of life, abandoning the supposed benefits of technology and embracing the natural flow of the world, now including magic. Indeed, it’s often hard to say when science stops and the supernatural begins. What might once have been strongly defined lines blur. Everything is an example of wonder in a fading landscape.

Dan Simmons looks over his left shoulder to worlds of fantasy

Dan Simmons looks over his left shoulder to worlds of fantasy

At the start of this story, we seem to be entering the final days as the sun grows weaker and struggles to rise over the horizon. Needing someone to blame for this latest catastrophe, the residual citizenry turns to attacking the few magicians they know. Needless to say, the magicians with real power simply relocate and ignore this riotous behavior, but news of the death of Ulfant Banderoz brings many out of hiding. This was the oldest of their number and the man who had established himself as the librarian of his age. Thinking they can now claim this accumulated knowledge for their own, the weak first-callers are destroyed by the residual spells protecting his library. This brings Shrue the Diabolist into play. He’s was the second oldest magician and now feels he should take control of the library for the good of the world. This sends him out into the world where he soon recognizes he has a real rival for access to the library. Thus begins an extended chase and sometimes violent dispute. As to where Shue goes. . . he just follows the nose which somehow seems to know where he should go.

All this represents a delightful allegory. Some seek knowledge for itself, having no purpose other than the satisfaction of curiosity. Others have more selfish motives, believing they are inherently entitled to knowledge so they can demonstrate their primary status. Needless to say, those whose motives are less than pure do not fare so well, while those of a more altruistic outlook prosper. Such is always the way in fairy stories written for adults. Taken overall, The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz is simply wonderful both in its own right and, should you have read any Jack Vance, as a recreation of Vancean style and attitude. You should read it. But this may prove difficult because the Subterranean Press limited edition was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. No doubt other editions will follow. However, the source anthology is equally wonderful with many outstanding stories. If you want the maximum value from multiple authors of rare talent, get access to Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois and incidentally enjoy the contribution from Dan Simmons.

For other reviews of books by Dan Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Drood
Flashback
Muse of Fire.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Flashback by Dan Simmons

October 17, 2011 4 comments

Flashback by Dan Simmons is a slight challenge to a reviewer who, in American terms, is a liberal. In fact, I’m not American and, in American terms, I’m actually a rabid Marxist, Trotskyist camp-follower who, upon capture, should be crucified at the first available opportunity. Or, if you prefer, I like to think about politics from a left wing perspective. So we need to approach this review in three steps.

First, no matter how you view Dan Simmons, there are few to beat him at a technical level. The prose on display in Flashback has the trademark efficiency that lifts mere craft to that of an artisan (in the French sense of the word indicating a master craftsman). In this respect, Simmons is one of an elite band of writers who contrive to produce highly accessible language that engages the mind and seduces the eye to turn the pages more slowly in case something interesting is missed. Except, there’s a mass of research that keeps rearing its head. Now I’m all for a writer adding in detail for local colour, but this is padding the book out just to show off the hard work he’s put in. And then there’s all the Shakespearean stuff that takes us into a metaphorical dream. Wow, is that boring or what?!

Second, as to content, we’re into a mystery set in a dystopian future. There’ve been some unfortunate events on the world stage that have seen the US hegemony broken by its profligate ways and a general economic collapse reducing all the major Western powers, plus China and Russia, to chaotic states. Only two political systems prosper. The Japanese revive the shogunate and a Caliphate emerges to unify the Islamic world. This world upheaval leaves the US fractured with the Mexicans coming in from the south, some states seceding, and the Canucks building a wall to keep out the noisome Yanks. The general culture is encouraged to collapse by the spread of Flashback. This escapist drug allows people to revive past memories in full detail. Needless to say, this is highly addictive, persuading people to abandon the tribulations of future unpleasantness in favour of happier pasts.

Dan Simmons, a tough and steely-minded inspiration to right-wingers

I was optimistic when I set off because I like the idea of a detective investigating a cold murder case by interrogating his past memories. There can be a constant dissonance between what he thinks he remembers and the actual memories he accesses using the drug. And, in truth, the structure begins to work out along predicted lines as he surveys the murder scene and begins talking to those who were on the list of suspects when he was the lead detective six years previously. Unfortunately, the potential is never realised as the novel loses its narrow focus on the death itself and dives into the context. Although the whodunnit ending does solve the crime and reveal the broader truth about the cultural events that led to the death and continue to drive the contemporary political situation, most of the interest is diffused because of the politics involved. If you want this in strict science fiction terms, I wanted a P. K. Dick story about the paranoia of what we think we can remember (wholesale or not) but, instead, I got something Proust might have written if there’d been SF way-back-then.

For a man who starts off a hopeless addict of many years standing, our hero goes cold turkey and comes through to full health and vigour without even the hint of withdrawal symptoms. If this is a drug with such a powerful effect, psychological and/or physical dependence is not going to be thrown off so easily. I also find his son Val less than believable. It seems this boy is too essentially good to succumb to full gang membership. Frankly, this is unreal. The whole point of gangs is they reinforce group solidarity with everyone being actively involved. If one member is not participating, he’s given a choice. Either you’re leading the next gang rape or we’ll beat you to death. No-one is allowed as a part-time member, good as a look-out but nothing else. No-one is allowed to demonstrate intelligence. And no-one stands up to the leader without this being seen as a challenge for leadership, resolved by pistols at ten paces or a rumble in the jungle.

Third, dystopias come in many different shapes and forms but, in a sense, the common theme is the nature of the government (or lack of one) growing out of our present reality. Think of an author planting seeds in today and describing the stunted and twisted trees later dominating the landscape. For these purposes, stuntedness can manifest itself either in the quality of the leadership or the loss of freedom for the citizens. In this case, Simmons has a simple message. Everyone’s life when to hell in a handbasket because the US went too far to the left under President Obama. He bankrupted the country with his socialist entitlement programs, and killed its international reputation with a craven foreign policy. Ho hum. This is a more extreme worldview than usually offered by the neoconservative right wingers. We get to this dystopia because America is not aggressive enough internationally, and fails to defend the Utopian democracy and its freedoms created by President Reagan and the generational Bush team. Well, such superficial polemics might work for the Tea Party membership, but I find them ludicrously simple-minded.

Dan Simmons asserts you can only tell the difference between fantasy and reality because the real thing hurts. If you’re in doubt, cut yourself with the biggest knife around. The resulting pain tells you this is not a dream. For me, this book was the equivalent of a knife. It started well, but soon passed my pain threshold. I did finish it by skimming to see what happened, but it’s relentlessly dull and politically naïve. Flashback is the author as shock-jock, i.e this book is only for right-wingers who want their worldview confirmed by one of their own.

For other reviews of books by Dan Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Drood
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz
Muse of Fire.

Drood by Dan Simmons

August 25, 2009 1 comment

The jacket artwork by John Picacio was shortlisted for the 2010 Chesley Awards.

It was the best of books, it was the worst of books. It was the tale of two books in one. At 775 pages, this is one of the longest books I have managed to read through to the end in the last decade. It is a serious test of patience, requiring the dauntless courage of an epic hero about to set off on a quest to reach the last page. This is Drood by Dan Simmons — a monster of a book that devours your time and energy with a rapacious appetite.

There is a real problem for authors who create unreliable narrators and give them the starring role in a first-person narrative. If everything is filtered through the eyes of a drug addict afflicted by paranoid delusions, then the world the novel presents must be distorted. That means any and all historical infodumps become very problematic. Authors love to do research, particularly when they are going to play with real-world characters in a specific place and identified times. In this case, we are at home with Charles Dickens, his family and intimate circle as seen through the eyes of Wilkie Collins. If this was an actual manuscript by Wilkie Collins, it would be redundant to engage in all the historical detail of their lives and times in London. The excuse that this is a document written for future generations does not hold up despite the repeated knowing winks to the Reader as yet more descriptions, explanations and research is dumped on to our poor Reader’s plate. Collins himself would never have written like this. While it is true that his works are rambling, this was the popular style in a Victorian era that first saw publication in serialised form, followed by a later hardback version (often in two or more volumes). He would not have felt the need to explain everything at this length.

I am reinforced in this belief because here is a man shown as experiencing mental disintegration. He is slowly becoming more paranoid, his self-admitted schizophrenia growing more pronounced and his delusions more disruptive to everyday life. He does, after all, look through a door and, for a few moments, stay watching a meeting between Dickens, his alternate self and the hypothetical Drood. I do not believe that a man increasingly divorced from reality would include vast digressions from his personal story in the form of factually accurate content. If he did make this editorial decision with the benefit of hindsight, the author would never leave delusion juxtaposed with reality without some acknowledgement. The text as here published is a modern author playing an elaborate game with his readers, and not a warts-and-all confession by a dying author. Worse, if this book is pretending to be an autobiography written by an English Victorian writer, it should be written in Victorian English, leaving the modern American reader to struggle with both the raw sexism, racism and unknowing hypocrisy of Victorian times, and the different vocabulary, syntax and spelling.

The format adopted by Simmons is to offer an insight into the mind of an author while he is building up to the creation of what is probably his best work and going through the well-documented domestic upheavals. At its heart, The Moonstone is a wonderful book, being rightly regarded as one of the first true detective stories in the modern sense of the word. It was also controversial in that it features a character seriously addicted to opium. This produced the sensationalism that is indispensable if an author is to market a bestseller. Simmons uses the autobiographical nature of The Moonstone as one of the two hooks on which to hang Drood, the novel. The second hook shadows the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens, introducing narrative threads from the episodes published by Dickens before his death. A part of the pleasure in Drood comes from watching the creative processes in both authors as their experiences give birth to literary ideas. The tension, for those who are familiar with the relevant published works, comes from seeing how the addicted Collins responds to Dickens. In fact, they were real collaborators. This fictionalisation explores one possible way in which that collaborative relationship might have worked. We also have Simmons indulging in intertextualism as he interweaves analysis of textual material drawn from the two authors’ works into the text of Drood. Frankly, although this sometimes adds an extra dimension to the paranoia of Collins, it is overused.

So this is two works in one. I would have been quite interested to read a literary biography of the collaboration between two such respected authors. Lives are shattered by events. These two men are both suffering, one from what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder following a near-death experience in a railway accident, and the other suffering from paranoid delusions arising from his drug addiction. But, not being a historian, I cannot say with any degree of certainty where the reality ends and the fiction begins. It is all very well for a modern author to play with history, but this is just annoying. If I had the time, I would disappear into a library and find out which bits are true. As it is, I am left with the terrible suspicion that if I now spout information about either man derived from Drood to a historian, I may be making a fool of myself. It is much safer to read fiction about fictional characters.

In the midst of all this history, cod or otherwise, lies an excellent story about a drug addict whose continued and escalating use of opium compounds existing schizophrenia and induces a psychotic break. Collins cannot tell what is real. Some of the set pieces under London have a wonderful feel about them as, in both physical and psychological terms, the author plumbs the depths and drags up corpses whose faces have fallen prey to rats and maggots. The paranoia is palpable as Collins finds fear everywhere, whether climbing the servant’s stairs in one of his homes or speculating on the cause of his mother’s sudden loss of health and “unexpected” death. The central core of this story is Drood who may be a game played between two men. Dickens may create this mythic figure and persuade Collins that Drood exists. Collins may delude himself into believing that he is playing a game with Dickens that involves a person called Drood. Either way, Collins starts off doubting that Drood exists and ends up believing in his existence. This conversion against a background of the physical landscape of slum London is a masterpiece of psychological terror. It is a terrible shame that the act of burying this story together with a literary biography in a pit of fictional quick lime diminishes interest in both.

For other reviews of Dan Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Flashback
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz
Muse of Fire.

Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons

August 23, 2009 1 comment

Semiotics considers the process whereby one person communicates meaning to another. Put simply, A formulates a message in which he or she encodes meaning. In some suitable way, this message is transmitted to B who decodes the message and extracts meaning. The problem for A in this system is to ensure that the meaning he or she actually wishes to transmit is the one that B understands when the message is decoded. So, as a no-doubt-apocryphal example from the days when battlefield messaging relied on human messengers, a General receives the message, “Send three-and-four pence, we’re going to a dance.” For the young lovers of decimal currency, the old pound sterling used to be divided into shillings and pence. The phrase, “three-and-four pence” was an abbreviated reference to three shillings and four pence: just the right amount to pay for tickets to the ball. But what the battlefield commander actually said was, “Send reinforcements. I’m going to advance.” This phenomenon is called Chinese whispers and has been captured in a party game where semi-inebriated people sit in a circle and whisper a message to each other in turn and are then amused by how mangled the words get as they pass through many different ears and mouths. So authors must take care to ensure that they say what they mean, and to say it in a way that can be understood by their audience (or something).

By cultural convention, some authors achieve universality. No matter when they created their works, they can still be read and enjoyed centuries later. As plays or adaptations into visual storytelling, the audience can still find enjoyment and appreciate how little people have changed. Whether this is the original story of how Leonidas held off Xerxes at Thermopylae as retold by Frank Miller or the film, 300, or Beowulf as endlessly recycled in television or cinematic adaptations, people still respond to heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. Perhaps the writer most accepted as transcending time is Shakespeare. His poetry and plays seem to have captured the widest range of human strengths and weaknesses, and resonate through the ages.

Muse of Fire, a novella by Dan Simmons, takes as its conceit, the notion that there would be a market for a troupe performing Shakespeare in the far distant future. I am using “conceit” ambiguously as being both an artistic device for the story itself and pride in an author like Shakespeare whose work has the ability to survive technological and cultural transformation. Like Jack Vance who has a troupe of singers traipsing from planet to planet in the appropriately titled Space Opera, Simmons has a group of travelling players endlessly touring planets where there are human remnants, and performing the Bard. Things like this happen in science fiction. What then follows is an exercise in what those of a technical bent call intertextuality, where selected works from one author are woven into and interpreted to advance the telling of the new story. On a smaller scale, Muse of Fire pursues the same methodology as underpinned the Ilium/Olympos duology.

Handled well, the mediation of one text through another can produce interesting synergy. But the danger is that the modern author inflicts his or her own research fascinations on the unsuspecting reader. Striking the right balance in fiction is always a challenge. In this instance, even though I used to be a regular ticket holder at Stratford-upon-Avon, I found the Shakespearean quotes and analysis slightly overdone. While there is no disputing the ingenuity of the plot to take such a cliché and convert it into something more interesting, the end product is only partially successful. Bolting on some super-science, if not fantastic, elements as the environments in which the plays are performed and contextualising these elements in a Gnostic framework does not rescue the whole. Indeed, if anything, this story as a spiritual allegory is somewhat heavy-handed.

So I am back to yet another moment of self-reflection to justify why I buy these expensive books from Subterranean Press. I suppose the answer is that some of them do prove their value in literary terms. Perhaps, if I was a bigger fan of intertextualism, I would have enjoyed Muse of Fire more. As it is, I am unlikely ever to pick this up again. The jacket artwork is quite pretty, but this is another white elephant of a book for me.

For other reviews of novels by Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Drood
Flashback
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz.

%d bloggers like this: