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!

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 Survivors, by Nick Farmer

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

“Do I miss it? I dunno, man, maybe. I feel like everything before the sleep was a lie, and now I’ve woken up, in more ways than one. But being awake is scary.”

The Survivors is a clever viral outbreak story that takes a unique, layered point of view on survival of the fittest. On the surface there’s a straightforward tale of post-apocalyptic existence at play, but there is also a lot between the lines about transhumanism, genetic modification, living rather than just being alive, fear motivating division motivating hatred, etc. It’s a great story, and the novelette form is the perfect length for it to unfold in.

Personally, the thing I love about short fiction is that when the word count is only so long, instead of filling in every last detail, writers have the freedom to tell a smaller, more human story, while hinting toward the greater fictional universe. This lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps and personalize their experience, effectively meeting the text halfway. I think this serves to kickstart our sense of wonder, which is the root of speculative fiction, and why short fiction has always been SF’s bread and butter. It’s that “What if…” that gets the ball rolling, and helps us to imagine. In The Survivors, the main “what if” questions are: What if the infected were the survivors, while still representing a mortal danger to the uninfected? What if it were preferable to be infected? What if there were desirable side effects? This novelette is a jumping off point for those kinds of questions.

Nick FarmerPart of the fun of post apocalypse stories, is the fantasy that everything could change in an instant. All of the daily drags, work, responsibilities, etc could evaporate and you could live a more exciting, adventurous life full of danger and genuine struggle. I think that a lot of us are so removed from the reality of living to survive, that we almost crave it. For most of us in the western world, what we call work barely resembles anything physically demanding. We sit in front of screens, and move pixels around, which somehow corresponds to a paycheck, but it’s all virtual; we aren’t really doing anything. I think this can sometimes leave us rather unfulfilled physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally. In turn, we crave some adventure, or maybe just something more “real”, something that ties into our mammalian core, and what’s more real than the struggle to survive? This is probably why we go camping, or hiking, why we ride motorcycles, or partake in other risky activities. It’s also most likely why we tend to love apocalyptic fiction in all its varieties. It’s a thrill to read.

Something else I want to touch on is the absolutely gorgeous graphic design both outside and inside this book. Each chapter heading has a visual progression that changes as you get closer to the conclusion. Little details like this really make a physical copy a worthwhile thing in an age of easy digital books.

Farmer first came to my attention through his work as the creator of the Belter conlang for The Expanse TV series. If you’re not familiar with Belter, it’s a creole language created specifically for the Syfy adaptation of the book series by James S.A. Corey. It has a surprisingly rich history built into every word and phrase. He has been very active in the online community of fans who latched onto Belter, often answering questions, adding to the Belter lexicon, and correcting usage from his twitter account. There was obviously a remarkable amount of thought and creativity that went into the creation of Belter, and I’d suggest looking into some of the podcasts and videos featuring Nick explaining the process. It’s fascinating stuff.

When I heard that he was writing fiction, I had high hopes that his output would be as good as his conlang creation. So I’m very glad to see that Farmer is not only gifted as a linguist, but is also showing quite a bit of talent and promise as a writer. His prose is clean and straightforward, the pacing smooth, and it’s a well structured story. I’ll definitely be picking up his future writing.

The world has changed. So have the Survivors.

When Daniel wakes up from a disease he never knew he had, he finds a nearly empty New York City, inhabited by a small number of people, who, like him, were infected, yet lived. They are biologically immortal, yet as carriers of the deadliest pathogen in human history, they are feared and reviled by their uninfected neighbors. Under constant threat of attack, Daniel and this new community are looking for answers about what happened, and why.