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.

Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction in simple terms: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breathe of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.

D’Arc, by Robert Repino

D'Arc, by Robert Repino

This sequel to Mort(e) picks up right where we left off and then propels itself forward. It feels like a few different genre novels married to each other: A western, a murder mystery, and an action/adventure story. I’ve always enjoyed that approach in speculative fiction. You take something fantasy or scifi, and write a story in that world from a different genre.

I thought it did a great job building up a mystery, while expanding on the mythology and worldbuilding quite nicely. In some ways it’s also a coming of age novel; a moral tale about choosing your own path, and writing your own story.

Robert RepinoRepino’s writing is extremely clean and tight. It reads effortlessly, and never gets in the way. Simple declarative sentences lay it all out for the reader. When the story really starts to get going, it’s almost like the writing entirely disappears, and you’re just… in it. I have to applaud him for that. I’m not even sure how one accomplishes something like that, but it’s impressive.

There was some fun closure for secondary and tertiary characters from the first novel, particularly Wawa. I really loved her arc in this. She was one of the better developed characters in Mort(e), so it was nice to see her get something good to chew on again in this one.

The last third, and the conclusion to the story didn’t really work for me. Early on there were a few big questions that were set up, and a great antagonist built through his own POV chapters, but those questions were mostly sidestepped, and the antagonist just fizzled out. I suspect that there will be more novels that may resolve my questions, and in fact, there was quite a bit of setup for what may be coming next. I have to admit it sounds very interesting. The world really is ripe for more stories.

All in all, it’s a fun continuation of the story that began in Mort(e), but it feels much less it’s own thing, and more an interstitial chapter in a continuing saga; something that needed to happen before the next part can occur. I’m still very excited for that next part though!

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with its creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister is out May 23rd from Tin House Books.

 

 

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

There is something tragically romantic about lighthouses: The structures themselves stand watchful and solitary, a beacon of warning and assistance to those at sea. The broad scope of protection proffered by one individual toward so many others. It makes the profession of lighthouse keeper appear selfless, but in my mind it’s more symbiotic than that. I imagine a lighthouse keeper as someone who strives to be useful, but requires isolation the way others require companionship. Introspective in a world that forces continual socialization; the job facilitating a way for them to achieve fulfillment while maintaining the functional distance they inherently need. I imagine them as superheroes in a way. Working alone in the dark for the betterment of humanity, but if they’re really being truthful, they do it for themselves more than anyone else. I’m obviously taking a lot of liberties here, but it’s how I’ve always imagined that world and those who inhabit it.

As far as I understand, modernity has mostly removed the need for lighthouse keepers, relocating that profession to an era of the past. This only adds another layer to the romance and tragedy for me. Basically, this is a long winded explanation of why I am inexorably drawn to stories featuring lighthouses, or lighthouse keepers, and what a story this one was.

We have two main points of view nested within each other: A third person narrative of a lighthouse keeper on a particularly cold night, reading a parcels worth of letters written by his somnambulant predecessor, each detailing a dream experienced during his sleepwalk events. These personal accounts are where the bulk of the story is contained, and in my opinion, where it really shines. The third person interludes between the dreams felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. I wanted something more introspective from these sections. However, I do believe the context in which they reside would change on a subsequent reading, so that may be a rash judgement on my part as a reader.

Lars Boye JerlachThe story itself has some strong elements of Paul Auster’s style of storytelling. Mystery upon mystery. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical realism. In his dreams, the somnambulist momentarily inhabits the bodies of others (or sometimes Poe’s raven Nevermore). Some of these characters are historically known to him, others are known to the lighthouse keeper reading the somnambulist’s accounts, and others still, aren’t known by either (but should be apparent to the reader of this book itself). There are a few fun surprises here as you become aware of who is being inhabited, and the way that these characters relate to each other. The somnambulist is unsure whether his dreams are genuine experiences, premonitions, or merely dreams. It’s really a clever story structure; each additional dream sequence adding to the mystery and intrigue as the story unfolds toward its conclusion.

The writing style took some time to become accustomed to. The whole book is double line spaced, there are almost no first line indentations, and the author has an on-again/off-again relationship with paragraphs. It feels like a stylistic choice, and I’ve seen it before, but I’m still unsure of the reasoning.

The Somnambulist’s Dreams is postmodern literature with a capital P. Which I’m all about, but have to be in the right kind of mood to properly enjoy. When it comes to postmodernist writing like this that is more ontological, paradoxical, etc, I find it often helps me if I know that that is what I’m getting myself into from the start. The gorgeous cover artwork and synopsis communicate this quite nicely. Every thread may not pull itself together into a pretty little bow in the end, but that’s part of the appeal; it’s the journey, not so much the destination with this kind of novel. I enjoyed this for the type of presence it cultivated while being read, not so much the definitive conclusion or ending that a traditional story builds toward. That’s not to say that The Somnambulist’s Dreams doesn’t conclude in a satisfactory way, it does. It’s just that it’s a bit of paradox in itself, which to me can be infinitely more interesting when it’s handled with grace like this.