Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Dimension of Miracles

Recently I purchased the NESFA edition of Dimensions of Sheckley, which contains 4 of his best novels and a novella. Rather than read them in order, I took the advice of Mike Resnick who, in his Introduction, called Dimensions of Miracles one of the finest science fiction novels ever.

While Resnick might have overstated slightly, it is indeed a very fine novel. The plot is simple: the protagonist Carmody, who lives on Earth circa 1960s, wins an intergalactic prize which requires him to go to Galactic Center and claim it. The alien who informs him of the prize takes him to claim it, but apparently nobody has any idea how to get Carmody back home. After all, the planets are in constant movement, and unless Carmody can provide some coordinates himself–which he cannot, since he is a rather typical 20th century American– there is nothing anybody can do for him.

Thus begins Carmody’s search across the galaxy seeking help in finding Earth again. He encounters a god who engages in philosophical discussions with Carmody and teaches him about the law of predation which basically states that every being incurs its own natural predator. And such a predator is seeking Carmody across the galaxy with the intention of devouring him. Carmody’s only safety lies on his home planet Earth, since that is his cave where he is safe from predators.

Carmody learns that there is a series of alternate Earths, all of which resemble his own Earth, although not precisely, on only one of which will he be safe from his predator. So with the help of an alien builder of worlds, Carmody visits one possible Earth after another. Eventually he either realizes himself that each world is not his Earth, or his predator finds him and he flees ahead of it.

Perhaps the most detailed, and interesting, chapter is when Carmody arrives on the correct Earth, but during the upper Cretaceous where he finds a society of intelligent dinosaurs who are stunned at the appearance of a talking mammal. In their culture, mammals are small, nonintelligent animals. At one point Carmody engages in a very funny conversation with a tyrannosaur–the leading race of dinosaurs–about the future of dinosaur society, all the while Carmody realizing that dinosaurs are doomed to extinction and replacement by mammals. The tyrannosaur asks Carmody about the future:

“Then you are the dominant species?” of the dominant species.”

“But what about the reptiles?”

Carmody had neither the heart nor the nerve to tell him that dinosaurs were extinct in his day, and had been extinct for sixty million years or so.

“Your race is doing every bit as well as could be expected,” Carmody replied.

“Good! I thought it would be like that! We’re a tough race, you know, and most of us have will power and common sense. Do men and reptiles have much trouble coexisting?’

“ No, not much trouble,” Carmody said.

“Glad to hear it. I was afraid that dinosaurs might have become high-handed on account of their size.”

“No, no,” Carmody said. “Speaking for the mammals of the future, I think I can safely say that everybody likes a dinosaur.”

Carmody’s prize itself is hilarious, apparently nothing more than a talking, shape-changing entity which mostly engages in witty repartee with Carmody.

Dimensions of Miracles is primarily a comedy which successfully pokes frequent jabs at the foibles of contemporary society, which is typical of Sheckley at his best. This is a highly-recommended novel. Now I eagerly await Sheckley’s other dimensions.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Hospital Station

Recently Tor Books has republished all of James White’s Sector General books in trade paperback omnibus editions, and the books have gotten generally good reviews, so I decided to try the first volume.

The original stories in the series were novelettes published in New Worlds and New Writings in SF, then gathered in book form as Hospital Station. Each novelette is set on a huge floating hospital which serves the entire galaxy in the distant future. Three races, including humans, dominate galactic affairs, but the hospital serves all races, including some so minor that nothing is known about their members until one of them shows up at the hospital needing immediate attention.

The hero of all the stories except the first one is a human doctor named Conway who serves as an emergency room doctor, usually assisted by another doctor or nurse from a non-human race. The plot of each story is similar: a patient from an obscure alien race arrives, and Conway struggles to learn enough about its biology to save its life. These stories are basically mysteries, except rather than dealing with crimes and violence they deal with illnesses and cures. Since I strongly dislike reading about the former, I enjoyed White’s approach much better.

Keep in mind that since all the stories deal with alien beings, the resolutions to the mysteries–that is, Conway’s cures–walk a fine line between legitimate solutions and deus ex machina. Fortunately, White tries really hard to be honest to his setup and his clues, and even when he crosses the line a bit, his stories are still interesting reading.

Novelette was a good length for these stories, since the repeated format might have grown boring at novel-form (although I will likely find out for myself since the next two-thirds of the first omnibus are novels). Overall, although basically puzzles at heart, the stories were enjoyable reading, a change of pace from more “serious” reading.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Defining speculative fiction

There are several ways to define speculative fiction, and being a compulsive organizer, I have ventured two of them. Twenty years ago I defined the genre based on its form:

A science fiction novel accepts all the scientific axioms of our real world, but adds one or two additional axioms to them.

A fantasy novel accepts most of the scientific axioms of our real world, but replaces one or two with imaginary axioms.

Thus a science fiction novel does not violate any of the real world’s tenets, but adds additional ones, such as space travel, futuristic life, alien beings, etc.

Fantasy basically accepts magic and/or the supernatural in addition to the majority of our real world’s tenets.

But what about alternate history? That was not a major part of the overall genre twenty years ago, but in the years since it has become so huge as to be equally important as f&sf. However, it does not really fit either of the above definitions. So what we need is a third definition for alternate history:

An alternate history novel accepts most of the historical facts of our real world, but replaces one of two with imaginary facts.

Another way to define speculative fiction is based on its intent:

Science fiction (or realistic imaginative fiction) is the study of plausible future change upon the world as we know it.

Fantasy (or unrealistic imaginative fiction) is the study of impossible change upon the world as we imagine it.

Alternate history is the study of hypothetical historical change upon the world as we remember it.

The word “hypothetical” in the third definition tends to separate it from the definitions of both fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s a fancy word for saying alternate history stories are what-if’s. What if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee), Germany had won World War II (The Man in the High Castle), or the Spanish Armada had beaten the English fleet (Pavane or Ruled Brittania). It does not have the same intent as a science fiction novel which aims to project outward from our world as it currently exists. Instead alternate history aims to project sidewise from key moments in the historical past.

Alternate history is not the only sibling genre to f&sf. Supernatural horror (as opposed to realistic horror) has so many overlaps with f&sf that it cannot be considered mainstream, but neither does it fit snugly as a sub-genre under either of the two genres.

I can understand why science fiction people have tended to subsume alternate history under f&sf, for the same reason that sf people originally subsumed fantasy under sf: they all deal with some version of imaginary worlds, whether plausible or hypothetical, so they are definitely all siblings under the cover. And while their differences have no effect on what we read, or how we review them, or when we vote for our favorites, from a critical point of view they have differences and can be discussed differently.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Heart of Science Fiction

It is popular to maintain that science is the heart of science fiction. Fans make that claim periodically, and nobody ever seems to dispute it. Surprisingly though, in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder, subtitled The Evolution of Hard SF, David Hartwell seemingly disputes that belief in his statement, It is a commonly held opinion of writers who write hard sf, and the perception of the readers who prefer to read it, that hard sf is the core of all science fiction. Notice that Hartwell doesn’t support the claim, merely pointing out that for some writers and readers science is perceived as the heart of science fiction. But is that belief true for all readers of science fiction?

Personally, I don’t believe science is the heart of science fiction at all. Although I have been reading science fiction faithfully for nearly 40 years, the vast majority of what I read is not centered around science. While it incorporates science as part of its worldview, it generally does not do so any more than my own daily life incorporates science in the form of modern technology. Very few of the stories I enjoy most are actually centered around science.

But it is possible my opinion only reflects my own prejudices and that I occupy a small corner of the science fiction universe rather than the center of it? Before I can legitimately make a far-reaching claim that science is not the heart of SF, I needed to investigate further. So I went to the results of a Locus poll several years ago in which its readers selected the best science fiction novel published prior to 1990. 52 books made the cutoff, led by Frank Herbert’s Dune in first place all the way to a tie for 52nd place between Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves and Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series. I went down the list and designated each novel into one of two categories: either science-centered or non-science-centered. My results: 9 books were science-centered and 43 were not.

So what is the heart of science fiction? In an attempt to determine the answer, consider the following possible definition of speculative fiction:

Speculative fiction is the study of historical change upon the world as we know it. That change might involve plausible change (science fiction) or implausible change (fantasy or alternate history).

As the Locus poll (admittedly not a scientific survey) has shown, while scientific and technological advances may accelerate the changes in most science fiction stories, or be one of the specific aspects studied in them, the changes being studied are primarily historical change rather than science itself.

As the definition implies, speculative fiction actually contains three distinct sub-genres, each of which I will discuss further in a future blog.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 15, 2004

A Dream of Scipio

After reading Iain Pears’ wonderful historical novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, I anxiously awaited the paperback publication of his newest novel A Dream of Scipio. The wait was well worthwhile, because this novel is every bit as fascinating and thought-provoking as its predecessor. The novel examines the similarities between three men living in France during particularly-trying times in that country’s history:

Manlius is a rich agnostic during the waning years of the Roman Empire when barbarian tribes are invading France. The emperor has failed to halt the tribes’ inroads, and people are dismantling many of their wealthy homes to use the materials to build protective walls against the invading horde. Manlius decides the best way to protect his people is by becoming the area’s bishop, since the Catholic Church is one of the few powerful organizations left. So he uses his influence to buy that position and we watch him try to defend France from the barbarians.

Manlius is also a scholar who has formed a close friendship with a pagan philosopher named Sophia whom he takes under his wing and protects, while she becomes such an important advisor to so many area people that after her death the legend of “Saint Sophia” arises, even though she is a decidedly non-Christian philosopher.

Olivier is a poet during the 14th century when France is experiencing the first signs of the Black Plague. He is a protegeé of Cardinal Ceccani during the Avignon papacy and best friends with Pisano, an artist assigned to work in area churches. We watch Olivier and Ceccani struggle to protect their people against the plague, while Pisano strives to achieve renown as an artist.

Finally, Julien is a scholar during the 1930s when Nazism is sweeping across Europe. His best friend– although definitely not his lover–is a Jewish artist named Julia who is struggling as an impressionist painter. One of the highlights of the novel is a meeting between her and a very self-absorbed Picasso when he is still an unknown and she is a precocious ten-year old.

The connection between the three men, in addition to how each strives to defend France, is that Olivier is studying a philosophical work written by Manlius entitled A Dream of Scipio, while one of the historical figures Julien is studying is Olivier who later in his life apparently ran afoul of a rich merchant who ordered his tongue and hands cut off to prevent him from possibly writing or dictating poetry ever again.

Each segment of the novel has similarities to the other two: Manlius is protecting Avignon against the invasion of barbarians in the 4th century, Olivier against the Black Plague in the 14th century, and Julien against the Nazis in the 20th century. Both Manlius and Julien are powerful Gaul / Frenchman who use their connections to cooperate with the Burgundians / Nazis, both putting the greater good of all citizens above that of a few. But the connection between the three men is only a small part of the novel’s emphasis. Each parallel segment is a rich character study interwoven with a complex plot which races to a thrilling conclusion even as the characters themselves are deepening and becoming fully-revealed to the reader.

Besides being successful as both a character study and a well-plotted page-turner, The Dream of Scipio is also a strongly-philosophical book in which Pears has gone to great lengths to investigate the nature of civilization and whether the good of the many overrules the rights of the few. This issue was important in all three centuries, and studying it was part of the connecting fiber between the writings of Manlius which was studied by Olivier and Julien in turn, as well as part of the philosophy espoused by Manlius’ pagan teacher Sophia and Olivier’s Jewish teacher Gersonides.

Pears’ depiction of all three historical eras was wonderful, providing the type of sense of wonder that great historical fiction strives to do. I was able to visualize all three eras and felt drawn into them easily, a tribute to Pears’ talents as a writer.

I have always felt that, for me at least, the ideal novel should combine equal parts characterization, plot, sense of wonder and thoughtfulness. Such a novel comes around a few times a decade, and it is always an occasion for joy. A few issues ago I was lamenting that writers who publish a masterpiece rarely follow it up with a novel equally-good. Pears has succeeded on both counts, and must be included among the finest writers today. I recommend this book very highly indeed.

Friday, August 06, 2004

The Light Ages

Ian R. MacLeod has achieved quite a reputation as a writer of short fiction over the past decade, regularly earning World Fantasy Awards and Hugo and Nebula nominations. The fact that he is neither a popular congoer nor a SFWA insider has probably denied him some awards he otherwise deserved. When his second novel The Light Ages was released last year, it immediately became a favorite of many critics, particularly those in Locus. Other critics offered it more tempered praise, partely because of shortcomings they saw in MacLeod’s political outlook in the book.

I don’t care much for politics, so I did not expect the latter to have much influence on me; in fact, the book’s political viewpoint was a bit naive even to me, but what bothered me more than that was that the novel seemed the cobbled-together plot of a short fiction writer who has not yet mastered the techniques of plotting a complete novel. Fortunately, MacLeod’s considerable talents managed to raise the book above its flaws and make a very enjoyable read out of it.

The Light Ages is set during a 19th century alternate England in which the Industrial Revolution has been fueled primarily by an almost-magical substance called aether. As a result of this, both the monarchy and the Parliamentary systems collapsed, and for the past hundred years England has been ruled by a rigid guild system: once you join a guild, which is often hereditary, you are a guild member for life. Outsiders are called marts and are generally frowned upon. It is a very rigid social system, as odious in the eyes of many lower-class guild members and marts as the Industrial Revolution horrors was viewed by Charles Dickens.

A third group is changelings, or trolls, who have been somehow mutated by exposure to aether in a manner, as Cheryl Morgan has described them, similar to how the x-men were created in the comic book.

Many critics have compared The Light Ages to a Dickens novel, but in truth the comparison were more superficial than deep into the philosophy of the book. MacLeod’s detailing of the dark, narrow streets of London and his preoccupation with the horrors of the guild system resembled Dickens. Borrow’s adventures, and the ultimate fate of the guild system, did not.

The first half of the book is primarily a coming-of-age story of Robert Borrows, the narrator of the book. Raised in an aether-mining town which supplies one-fifth of all of England’s aether, he leaves home for London where he rejects his father’s guild, but instead begins working for a revolutionary newspaper. At this point, the novel is set against the backdrop of the revolution which all the radicals are convinced is coming. In fact, little is shown about the social conditions which have either sparked or are currently fueling that revolution. And MacLeod gives us no reasons to assume that it is indeed coming sooner rather than later if, in fact, it is coming at all.

What he does show us instead is Robert interacting with other people in London in a form of extended travelogue written with glorious use of the English language. The atmosphere is mysterious throughout, much of which comes from the fact that none of the characters ever speak to each other. They talk at each other, often in obscure statements, occasionally leaving me as confused as Robert was, which perhaps was the author’s intend. Several of Robert’s companions gradually become the important secondary characters in the novel:

• his companion and fellow revolutionary Saul

• a changeling girl named Anna who Robert loves, but either does not realize or refuses to admit, and whose background is somehow connected to the death of Robert’s mother from aether overexposure

• George and Sadie, two members of the upperclass who befriend both Anna and Robert and seem accepting of the coming revolution even though it will likely wipe both of them out financially if it occurs

For half the book we follow Robert in his travels through London, but in truth there is very little growth in him or in any of the characters emotionally. The Light Ages is written in such a matter-of-fact, low-key manner that we really don’t get into any of the characters’ psychés except on the most surface levels.

But none of these flaws take away from the fact that MacLeod writes wonderful scenes, even if some of them seem a bit lacking in purpose or relevance. The death of Grandmaster Harrat, for example, was a powerful scene, but other than being a study in irony, it was all surface and rather pointless. And the times Robert dallied with the very rich were equally well-done, but other than developing his relationships with Anna and Sadie, they also served no forward-moving purpose.

After the revolution failed to happen as anticipated, Robert suddenly became preoccupied with learning the fate of his mother and the causes for one specific guild member’s rise from being a lowly but hated foreman in Robert’s hometown to one of the elite rich in London. There was no motivation shown for Robert’ sudden preoccupation, but his investigation ultimately led to an uncovering of such a web of deceit that it resembled poor Pandora’s opening the box: so much came flying out of it that not only Robert’s life, but the entire future of England ultimately changed because of what Robert learned.

If you have not yet read The Light Ages and plan to do so, I suggest you stop reading now, as I am about to play the spoiler!

Halfway through the novel, thanks to Robert’s investigations, the dreamed of revolution finally occurs–not logically, and certainly not convincingly, but necessarily because it was time for MacLeod to abandon his beautiful but unrelated scenes and concentrate on the novel itself. And it became obvious after the revolution that this novel was actually intended to be a meditation on the Kinks’ rock opera Preservation or the Who’s classic song Won’t Get Fooled Again.

The Light Ages required several drastic suspensions of belief for its plot to be acceptable, but mostly that was easy to do because in spite of all the problems in the structure of the novel itself, MacLeod’s scenes were still beautifully-written and most of them were enjoyable reading. It is too bad though that such beautiful writing and such inventive scenes were framed with a political polemic whose logic resembled an x-men comic book.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Rise of Endymion

In The Rise of Endymion Dan Simmons obviously tried to write an epic equal in scope and complexity to The Fall of Hyperion. While he did not succeed, his aim was high enough that even with the novel’s flaws–and some of them were considerable–there were still enough of Simmons’ strengths that the novel was worthwhile overall. It was basically the story of Aenea’s revolution against the Pax, but it also attempted to tie up all the loose ends left over from the first three novels, loose ends involving the relationship between the TechnoCore–which, although considered destroyed at the end of Fall was revealed as still in existence, merely removed from the visible affairs of humanity–the identity of the Shrike, the fates of characters left dangling as far back as the pilgrimage to Hyperion, the true origin of Aenea, and, finally, the fate of the Pax, the Ousters, and all the other remaining elements of humanity scattered throughout the former Hegemeny.

It’s a very complicated web Simmons has woven, and much of its unraveling was quite fascinating reading and generally successful. Simmons’ universe is still as exotic as it was three novels ago, and his characters are as varied and colorful as always. The dispersal of Aenea’s new religion–the revolution–was quite fascinating and the philosophical heart of the novel. I wish Simmons had spent more time examining its dispersal throughout the former Hegemony than he did.

However, the novel has several notable flaws which prevent it from being totally successful. The leftover baggage from Endymion was too much to overcome. Where Fall was basically an exploration into the very heart and soul of life and death, the entire first half of Rise was basically a war novel concerned primarily with the twin obsessions of the Pax to destroy the Ousters–the “final solution”–and, in collusion with the TechnoCore, to kill Aenea since they decided she was the seed of both their ruination and thus entirely too dangerous to be allowed to live under any circumstances.

In his attempts to keep the suspense level of The Rise of Endymion high, Simmons did a lot of cheating. The majority of the story was told from the point of view of Raul, who not only spent most of his time with Aenea but they became lovers, which causes me to suspect there was a bit of a pun in the novel’s title since they consummated their relationship early in the novel and, after all, his name is Raul Endymion!. Aenea possessed all the information Simmons needed to reveal at the novel’s conclusion for reasons too complicated to explain here. But, considering the series’ heavy mythic overtones, the reasons for her extensive knowledge were mostly acceptable if one suspended disbelief reasonably well. Although Raul narrated both the last two novels late in his life, at the time of the action he knew as little as the reader knew. Thus his enlightenment corresponded directly with the reader’s enlightenment. And how did he learn things? From Aenea who knew everything. Yet whenever he questioned Aenea, as he did quite frequently, she mostly responded by saying, “It’s not time yet, Raul.” Thus the reader was kept in suspense for several hundred pages mostly because Aenea withheld the information from Raul–which was quite strange, considering the closeness of their relationship. One of the facts she never explained to him was the truth about her other marriage and child, which at times nearly tore them apart emotionally, and which he ached desperately to know about, so it served absolutely no purpose for Aenea to conceal the truth from him for several hundred pages, especially since the answer to the mystery was so obvious to the reader it was hardly a mystery at all. Its only purpose was that Simmons was not ready to give away the secrets to the reader yet, so it was convenient for Aenea not to give them away to Raul either, no matter how irrational it was in the context of their relationship. That’s cheating on the part of the author.

And when Simmons was finally ready to reveal information, he did it through the oldest trick in the books: he lectured the reader! Much of Aenea’s revolution required her to serve as the new messiah spreading religious/philosophical beliefs quite opposed to the teachings of the Pax. So throughout the novel she gathered groups of “students” and taught them the truth about their universe, including everything we readers needed to know as well, each lecture concentrating on a different aspect. It was all useful information for readers who waited patiently for answers for over 1,500 pages, but such long, frequent stops in the story’s action did grow tedious at times.

There are other flaws as well. The sudden reappearance of several pilgrims from Hyperion–who supposedly died two centuries previously–with no real valid reason except to strengthen the novel’s mythic resonance. The frequent deus ex machina intrusions which occurred whenever Aenea and Raul got in trouble. Once they escaped through the intervention of the Shrike, another time by the sudden reversion of Father De Soyo from Pax loyalist to moralist, and yet another time by Aenea’s suddenly developing amazing powers that basically contradicted the entire premise of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.

And perhaps most frustrating of all, no matter how hard I tried to believe in Aenea as the spearhead of the new revolution, as the novel progressed she became just too knowing and too saintly. I realize that all messiahs are fonts of knowledge, and Simmons did give Aenea a background where rebel elements of the TechnoCore served as her own teachers while she was still in her mother’s womb, but that doesn’t explain how she knew everything about science and history, even about the lives of most of the supporting characters. Some of it was difficult to accept at the novel’s beginning–after all, she was only a 12 year old kid at that time who was definitely not a god–but as the novel continued she grew even wiser and showed very little self-doubt or weakness, so much so that she came to resemble more of a fictional icon rather than a real living being. And ultimately, that failure weakened the believability of the novel beyond repair.

I also realize that messiahs must perform actions that are not logical in themselves but which satisfy ancient prophesies, but surely Aenea must have had some feelings towards her incredibly painful death rather than blasé acceptance of it.

Granted I am being harsh here, but primarily that is because of the standards Simmons himself set in the first two novels. When an author aims for the highest levels–and he obviously did in The Rise of Endymion as much has he did in The Fall of Hyperion–then he must be graded according to those standards. But a failure on a higher level often still leaves enough positive elements to make the novel worthwhile, which is basically what happened with The Rise of Endymion. Elements of the novel bothered me, since I know they could have been better, but overall I enjoyed it and consider it a partially satisfactory conclusion to the entire Cantos.

So what does all this mean overall for the Hyperion Cantos? If I were grading the novels, I would give Hyperion an A, The Fall of Hyperion A+, Endymion B- (although fans of thrillers might have rated it higher), and The Rise of Endymion B. That’s not a bad overall rating, although I suspect it might have been higher if the order of the novels had been reversed. No matter how one tries to ignore the quality of a predecessor in reading a successor novel, it’s still always there buried somewhere in the back of your mind and damned if you don’t keep longing for the former novel if the latter one is even a bit less in quality.

Monday, August 02, 2004


Which brings us to the third novel in the Hyperion Cantos, Endymion. About one-fourth of the way through the novel several thoughts entered my head.

• One, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the sequel to one of the finest all-time science fiction novels could possibly equal its predecessor in quality. What writer’s output exists on the same constant level? A writer’s body of work is like the movement of the waves, high tide followed by low tide, tides increasing, then receding endlessly. And it is natural for every writer to have a masterwork, one spectacular work that embodies everything the writer aimed for in a manner unlikely to ever be achieved again. When it occurs too early in a career–Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal and Lord of Light back to back, for example–the writer is then doomed to spend the rest of his career answering the eternal question, “Whatever happened to...?”

• Two, I could not help but be reminded of St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, how the sequel to the thought-provoking and philosophical A Canticle for Leibowitz had replaced thoughtfulness with a routine but well done plotty novel about the interaction between domineering Catholic Church and material powers. Simmons’ sequel seemed headed in a similar direction, so I needed to keep in mind that Miller’s sequel, though far below Canticle in quality, was still worthwhile reading on its own merits. I needed to judge Endymion on its own merits and not based on the standards established in Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.

• Three, the first third of Endymion had holes in it sooo big the counsel’s spacecraft could have flown right through them. The whole scenario about She Who Teaches–the twelve-year old daughter of one of the original pilgrims–escaping precisely 274 years into the future by entering the Sphinx had no rationale behind it, nor did the mad poet Martin Silenus’ plan to rescue her from the clutches of hundreds of Church militia waiting for her to exit from the Sphinx. Why did he choose Raul Endymion as his hero anyway? And how could somebody supposedly dead, hiding out from the Church authorities, manage to fake Endymion’s execution and accomplish his escape? And how did they pull off that incredible rescue of She Who Teaches? I mean, an unexpected appearance by the Shrike who hasn’t been seen in nearly three centuries? How the hell did Martin realize the Shrike would be there at all? I could not help but wonder if Simmons was so anxious to begin his long-awaited blockbuster thriller with a boffo thriller sequence–sort of the literary equivalent of how Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas open their blockbuster movies–that he threw logic out the window in favor of *smash bam* action adventure.

• Four, and this is probably a personal gripe that most of you can just ignore, but I’m tired of science fiction novels in which the Catholic Church evolves into a totally repressive, anti-humanistic entity reminiscent of its worst years spanning the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition. In this overly politically correct era there are very few minority or ethnic groups that science fiction writers dare use as villains. White males and the Catholic Church are about the only “acceptable” villainous groups remaining in science fiction, and writers who would never dare use Muslims or ethnic Hindi as a villainous group don’t consider it the least offensive to portray the future Catholic Church as basically an organized terrorist group, and its members either as passive sheep or amoral supporters. And that’s pretty much the image of the Catholic Church portrayed by Simmons in Endymion. The novel opens with the hero Raul Endymion threatened by an obnoxious and amoral businessman wearing the insignia of the Church around his neck. First he almost kills Endymion accidentally–in one of the more ludicrous sequences in the book–and later he deliberately tries to kill him with an outlawed handgun. After Raul disarms him, humiliating him in the process, the businessman’s three Catholic companions all lie at Raul’s trial and the amoral Catholic judge callously sentences Raul to death after refusing to allow him to testify under truth drugs. All because Raul is himself not a member of the Catholic Church! Before the entire series ends, Simmons has the Pax (his name for the future Catholic Church) engage in a Crusade, a revived Inquisition, and–perhaps most insulting of all!–a “final solution” of genocide to eliminate the Ousters (and I still can’t believe Simmons actually used that phrase in his attempts to compare the horrors of the Pax with the horrors of Naxism).

Poor Father Hoyt is treated even worse by Simmons. He was perhaps the most harmless of all the original pilgrims in Hyperion, but in Endymion he has become the evil pope lurking behind the scenes; and the antagonist of the novel is a supposedly moral Jesuit Father Captain De La Soya to whom we are first introduced destroying an entire swarm of harmless humans. *sigh*

Endymion did not change immediately after that beginning. Where The Fall of Hyperion was a thoughtful novel in the guise of a thriller, Endymion was almost exclusively a thriller concerned with the exploits of Father Captain De La Soya chasing She Who Teaches and her small entourage across the galaxy, trying desperately to capture her for the Church for no reason that was explained very well except the Church’s irrational belief that she is a danger to them. As I stated above, her first escape was due to the deus ex machina appearance of the Shrike; the second was slightly more believable as the twelve-year old girl brazenly bluffed her way past De La Soya’s military; the third was even more deus ex machina as the ship descended to planet level under the watchful eyes of the military, then miraculously vanished through a farcaster portal across the galaxy–oh, yeah, did I tell you that in the climax of The Fall of Hyperion, as part of the cataclysmic changes which took place in human space, all farcasters were permanently destroyed as humanity shook off the yoke of the TechnoCore totally? So why the heck did one of them abruptly and conveniently work again?

The chase continued for 400+ pages. Keeping in mind the ebbs and tides in a writer’s career, and the fact that I am not a fan of thrillers per se, it was relatively interesting, especially in the scenes where Aenea–She Who Teaches–and her companions visit a series of former Hegemeny worlds three centuries after the Fall. But then the novel abruptly took a change for the worse– and, for me it was a big change–with the introduction of a new character named Rhadamanth Nemes who is basically a comic book super-villain accompanying Father De La Soya. Able and willing to kill at will, she does so, ruthlessly killing 24 innocent people in her first real scene in the book for no reason other than perverse pleasure. She is able to immediately find Aenea’s destination because somehow–miraculously!–she is able to tap into the farcasters which only work for Aenea and learn where they are sending her and even where they will send her in the future. By this point, with less than 100 pages to go in the novel, I was ready to give it up completely. But I persevered. After all, this is Dan Simmons and this is the sequel to The Fall of Hyperion.

And then, abruptly at about the 500 page mark, things abruptly changed again, only this time for the better. A conversation between Aenea and her companions revealed information about the TechnoCore that put a new light on previous events, including the abilities of Nemes. Some clever detective work by Father De La Soya revealed a bit more and his moral side began eroding his loyalty to the Pax. The overall effect of all this is that what had been an almost mindless thriller riddled with holes was evolving into a complex mystery with explanations looming for some of the holes. And many of the questions which had been raised in Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion seemed as if they might have answers looming on the horizon. It seemed as if Simmons was setting himself up for a more thoughtful, complete sequel, but why the hell did it take him 500 pages to decide all of this? Anyway, suddenly I found myself waiting anxiously for the conclusion of the entire saga.