Bang Crunch: Stories, by Neil Smith

A solid little collection of human stories. Clever themes, tight writing, and very vibrant three dimensional characters. Something to relate to in every story, with only one stinker in the bunch. Neil Smith is Canadian, so there was a little more french in it than I was prepared for. I should probably learn at least some basic French at some point. 3.5 stars averaged, rounded up because there are some killer ones in here.

Isolettes: 4/5
Sad, but very poetic and knowing. Love this guy’s writing.

Green Fluorescent Protein: 3/5
Coming of age, dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Being comfortable with yourself.

B9ers: 3/5
Clever and cute story about pushovers and correlation. One race based plot point fell flat for me near the end.

Bang Crunch: 5/5
Really reminded me of Ted Chiang’s writing. Good stuff.

Scrapbook: 3/5
Could’ve been terrific, but ultimately left me wanting something more from it. I’m not sure what, so that may just be my fault.

The Butterfly Box: 5/5
Damn, this was beautiful and real.

Funny Ha Ha or Funny Weird: 4/5
Alcoholism and dealing with loss. Excellent follow-up on a specific secondary character from Green Fluorescent Protein.

Extremities: 1/5
Just not a good story at all. It felt more like a creative writing exercise on weird POVs.

Jaybird: 5/5
Thespian life has always seemed for the crazies. I went back and forth between loving and hating this one as I read it, ultimately I settled on loving it. Revenge against a crazy industry, and life working better when you accept who you are and work with it instead of against it.

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

This is my first Alastair Reynolds standalone novel. Having previously absorbed everything remotely related to his Revelation Space series over the last few years, I wanted to dip my toes into some of his one-off writing before digging into his newer series work. For some reason this book has been out of print in the US for a few years, making a physical copy a little tedious to come by, but I did eventually find one. Come on ACE, it’s time for a reprint!

Coming from the RS camp, I was surprised with the linearity of this story. The whole thing is written in first person, with two main point of view characters in alternating chapters. Every 6-7 chapters brings a flashback interjection that slowly reveals details and moves everything forward. I suppose adding unnecessary linear complexity to a story that already has so many strange new concepts in it, might’ve been overkill on the reader. As a result, the story flows nicely and was easier to follow than Revelation Space. I’d say this would be a terrific jumping in point if you were interested in checking out Reynolds’ work.

House of Suns is epic in every way the word can be defined. The scale of some of the conceptual elements was so broad that I initially had some difficulty finding a handhold to comprehend them. I felt like it stretched my mind a little bit just reaching for a way to relate. The best Science Fiction always does this for me in some way. It exists in that sweet spot directly between what you currently understand, and what you are capable of understanding. The best stories can be a linchpin, connecting you to your future, slightly more experienced self. I suppose this is true of all fiction, but I find it particularly so with the genres of Speculative Fiction, which are after all, more interested in investigating the “other” than fiction firmly rooted in the realm of realism often is.

The amount of mind-bending concepts Reynolds managed to pack into this novel while maintaining a coherent story is impressive: Star dams, ring worlds, causality, time dilation, artificial intelligence, solar system relocation, ancient technology, the nature of memory, longevity, cloning, wormholes, civilizational “turnover”, etc. It’s simply exploding with these huge ideas, but the story is never sacrificed in favor of them. It churns along, always moving forward.

Reynolds occasionally gets some slack for his character development or lack thereof, each character’s voice tending to just be the author’s voice, etc. So, when I realized that most of the characters in House of Suns were literal clones of the same character, I rolled my eyes a little and thought “Well, I guess that’s one way to get around the criticism.” But, it actually worked very well here.

These clone characters are “shatterlings” with indefinitely long lifespans that have drifted from their source individual, and each other, for 6 million years (epic scale!) and are essentially unique individuals as a result of their differing life experiences. Because they are clones, instead of noticing their similarities, you’re drawn toward their differences. The ways in which they are similar just reinforce the fact that they started from a near identical point. It’s a brilliant way to reframe the reader’s perception regarding character work without actually changing the writer’s approach to characterization. It feels very self-aware, and it’s clever as hell. It’s almost like he’s acknowledging his critics, but saying “See, it’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how you look at it”. Personally, the character work in Reynolds’ books has never bothered me, but if it bothered you, I think you’ll find this one has a refreshingly different take.

The story concludes satisfactorily, but leaves some things open for more. I would absolutely love another novel set in this universe, and the point at which this novel arrives could be seen as a great widening of that universe’s potential scope. It’s ripe for more tales, and I hope we get them. Reynolds has said: “I would like to return to this universe but I have no fixed plans for when that will happen.” Fingers crossed that those plans will materialize soon!

Superabundance, by Heinz Helle

Superabundance, by Heinz HelleA deeply philosophical, hopeful little novel about fear, attention, community, morality, perception, and the nature and/or existence of consciousness. As sparse as Don DeLillo, but descriptive in a vague, matter of fact manner. God I loved this book.

Heinz HelleThe unnamed protagonist in Superabundance states the obvious in an alien way. Not just alien as in, not from around here alien, but alien to the point that it seems like this character may only recently have become human, and may not yet be aware of the fact. It begins as a look at the lives of Americans in New York City from an outsider’s perspective. The protagonist overanalyzing everything around him, social norms and situations, the nature of his work, how basic and repetitive life truly is, etc, and progresses from there into an existential question about the human condition and the nature of control.

It somewhat reminded me of The Stranger by Camus, mostly in the way that the protagonist seems simultaneously cripplingly self-centered, self-unaware, but also hyper aware of everything around him, the world swimming past him that he’s drowning in. There’s a telling moment where he feels the need to apologize to everyone and everything for his nature. He is powerless to change who he is. His attention is continually drawn in by everything except what he wants/feels he should be attentive toward. He is realizing how little control he actually possesses. He fears his libido, fears that he may not stay loyal, fears that he can see his relationship deteriorating before his eyes, fears that he may not be conscious, fears that he may be all too conscious.

“I don’t think you even know what love is, she says, running her fingernail across the fitted sheet and looking at the books on the floor beside the bed, and I look at her fingernail, then at the books, and I think, of course I don’t know what love is, and I say: Of course I know what love is.”

I was particularly impressed by the subtlety Helle exercised in illustrating this slow deterioration of a relationship. Little things, eventually snowballing into something insurmountable. No real starting point, nothing to point to and say “This is where it all went wrong”, just a gradual decline from a seed that had no inception. An inevitability of two people being who they are. It’s a powerful statement on materialism in the philosophical definition of the word.

The last few scenes in the novel may be my favorite scenes in any book ever. Its delicious, strangely hopeful celebration of the majesty, glory, and variety of life present in humanity makes me want to embrace the next person I see and scream “We are the same, you and I! We are the same!”

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

This is another one of those classics of SF literature that I have somehow missed reading over the years. Had I been more of an active reader in the nineties, I’m sure I would’ve come to it much sooner. Thankfully, I finally got there, and Hyperion was not what I expected, in the best way possible. It’s most often compared to Dune, The Book of the New Sun, or other great works of Science Fantasy. Obviously, coming into the novel my expectations were high, and I knew the most basic gist of the plot: a pilgrimage across a world to meet an unimaginable being. What I got was partly what I anticipated, but in a very left-field form, which was such a refreshing subversion of my what I thought I was getting myself into. It delivered on what I thought it was, but in a way I never imagined, and it was fantastic.

Dan SimmonsInstead of straight-forward narrative momentum, Hyperion is almost entirely the backstories of these pilgrims. It’s heavily character based, and the only book I can honestly say is 100% both a novel, and a story collection. These stories are more technically novellas, because of their length, but you get what I’m saying. Each story genuinely adds to the forward narrative, by going backward. It’s really quite breathtaking to see this done so well. I’ve read other collections that are also novels, but they’re always more one or the other. This is equally both.

Each tale feels like a slightly different genre married to science fiction, and the interstitial sections weave them together tightly. Only one of them fell slightly flat for me. Mostly because it was more akin to cyberpunk than anything else, and I have a real love/hate affair with cyberpunk. I tend to judge the genre entirely too harshly at times, mostly because if I have any sort of professional knowledge, it’s in the Information Technology arena, and I have a difficult time suspending my disbelief about the realities of virtual worlds in regards to how they’re represented in cyberpunk. That’s a topic for another day.

Hyperion has that indescribable, almost lovecraftian terror, dread and brooding present throughout, and one tale in particular left me unbearably heartbroken. There’s honestly only one thing I can objectively complain about here, and it’s more endemic to the genre during the time period this was written in than anything else: the way the narrator spends an inordinate amount of time describing women’s bodies, broken down into parts, particularly breasts and nipples. It’s just kind of eye-roll pervy, but it’s my only real gripe. Thankfully, it’s not quite at a Haruki Murakami level, and this doesn’t much happen anymore in the really well written stuff of the genre, but I’m more embarrassed for the author than anything else, award winning fiction like this is fairly written in stone for future generations to examine.

I was torn whether or not to dig straight into The Fall of Hyperion after finishing this, but ultimately I decided not to just yet. I want to let this percolate and grow in my mind, but mostly I’m one of those anti-bingeing types that prefers to spread great stories out over a long period of time, to elongate my enjoyment of them, and better unpack their themes. I think it’s time for a non-genre novel, and then I’ll dig back in when the time is right. That being said, I can’t wait to come back to the world of Hyperion, and see what new terrors await these fantastic characters.

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The time period is difficult to pin down. The location is difficult to pin down. Maybe New York, maybe Boston or Chicago? 1950s, 1960s? There are clues pepered here and there but the whole thing has a timeless, every city quality to it. I love that it’s never explicitly stated. This world is exactly like ours, except that elevators are a big, big deal. Their creation has shaped the form and structure of cities; buildings with arrangements of floors vertically stacked ad infinitum up into the sky, a concept itself only possible as a result of reliable, mechanical elevation. Those elevators highly utilized only because they are safe, safe only because of the skilled elevator inspectors laying down the law regarding their maintenance, and upkeep.

Colson WhiteheadAll of this is true in our world as well, but here it’s more than just a technicality, it’s elemental as a foundation of their entire modern society; an alternate Americana. Elevators and elevator inspectors are given the same level of awe that airplanes and pilots once had in our version of America. Just as the airplane compressed our world’s surface horizontally, elevators compressed theirs vertically, bringing the unrealized potential of the sky down to earth.

Elevators aren’t just a large aspect of the literal plot of the novel, but used as a metaphor for the ongoing racial struggle of black Americans, among other things. It’s handled elegantly, and I don’t want to touch on it all that much for fear of spoiling the experience. Suffice it to say there are several layers to this elevator-as-metaphor aspect, and they have a unique dialogue with one another.

Two warring factions in the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a bustling metropolis vie for dominance: The Empiricists, who go by the book and rigorously check every structural and mechanical detail; and the Intuitionists, whose observational methods involve meditation and instinct. The Intuitionist conjures a parallel universe in which latent ironies in matters of morality, politics, and race come to light.

Almost every corner of the novel mirrors, and folds on itself. The narrative is broken into two sections: Down, and Up: a fall from grace, and a rise from the ashes. A literal crashing down of one elevator, and a possible rising of another, perfected model; a “black box”. The dual and dueling, mirrored approaches to elevator inspection, Empiricism and Intuitionism. The former being the familiar method of visually inspecting, and testing components to ensure their reliability, checking them against tolerances and allowances. The latter embodying what you might call a holistic approach; feeling and communicating mentally, or spiritually with the elevator in an effort to understand what issues may be affecting it. The concept of intuitionism is where a lot of the surreal comedy of the novel stems. Can you imagine a sillier approach to checking a mechanical system? It’s all very Pynchonesque.

This book is an exemplary illustration of the power speculative fiction wields as a form of literature. Because of course, intuiting what ails an elevator is completely ridiculous in the real world, but it’s oddly endearing in an America slightly off from our own. Empiricists don’t respect Intuitionists, but they can’t argue with their results, which statistically, are ever so slightly more effective. It’s a slap in the face for those living a life guided by rules and measurements, when “feeling” a system merits slightly better results than doing your best to follow the rigid structure you are in trying to impose on the world. Couple this with the double standards governing white America and black America, men and women, and it becomes poetic. This is used to show that there is always more than one way to approach any topic, any reality that you can interact with. That only using our eyes, can sometimes blind us in other ways, to other things. Reality is what we make it, and limiting ourselves to just one sense can be a dangerous practice indeed. You have to be able to fathom change before you can start to affect it.

The Intuitionist reminded me, in an odd way, of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I am unsure if it’s the somewhat similar setting, similar themes of an underclass breaking upward into America proper, or the general mystery aspect of the narrative. Both were published in 1999, maybe there’s a similar cultural background at play? Whatever the reason, I find them comparable novels.