Visions of Paradise

Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Fall of Hyperion

I’m not going to beat around the bush here: Dan Simmons’ The Fall of Hyperion is one of the very finest–perhaps the finest–science fiction novels every written! It takes the foundation laid in Hyperion and weaves into an even more wondrous tale. Let me explain some of the reasons I consider it such a rousing success:

• The novel is quite intricately plotted, with storylines interwoven with storylines that individually could carry an entire novel; woven together they create a tapestry so rich and wondrous it was an absolute delight to read. While reading it I wondered how Simmons could possibly tie all the storylines together at the end without it all being forced or unreal. Somehow he pulled it off in a manner that was both satisfying and yet still maintained the sense of wonder that permeated the entire novel.

• The background universe which Simmons created in Hyperion is more fully explored, providing sensory treats throughout. Consider the farcasting system of transportation which unites worlds lightyears apart and enables the extremely rich to build their houses spread across several worlds. Or the exotic religions which co-exist peacefully throughout the Web until the climactic invasion of the entire Web by outside invaders. Or the fantastic worlds themselves, most notably Hyperion which reveals more of its wonders throughout this second volume. If Simmons could not plot at all, or create a single vivid character, the wonders of his background universe would still make the novel a delight to read.

• The artificial intelligence Core was first spawned by humans centuries ago when they created their computers and kept pushing them farther and farther from pure machines into true AI. At one point those intelligences rebelled and broke away from humans to form their own level of existence far beyond the ken of humanity. But they maintained one aspect of humanity in that they were not a united entity but consisted of warring factions: the Ultimates devoting themselves to creating the Ultimate Intelligence–their god, if you will; the Volatiles agreeing with that goal but seeing no need to be hindered by the existence of humans, thus desiring to destroy them all; and the Stables who compromised between the two other factions and thus kept humans alive. The Core is one of the main “characters” in the novel which is examined quite closely and it is a rich, pulsating place that astounds each time we enter it.

• The fascinating characters! Besides the pilgrims from Hyperion continuing their cosmic quest, we meet a whole other cast of characters, including many people struggling to protect the Web against invasion by the Ousters, who are humans who fled the Web millenia ago to form a civilization far different from that of the Web and who have now returned to invade the Web and threaten its billions of citizens. The two most important characters are Meina Gladstone, the chief executive who leads the struggle against the Ousters on one hand, but seems to have much more important concerns about the entire future of humanity on the other; and Joseph Severn, a creation of the Core imbued with the essence of poet John Keats and who serves as the novel’s narrator since he witnesses events in the government firsthand and events on Hyperion through his dreams. We learn as he learns.

• In many ways, The Fall of Hyperion was constructed like a historical epic rich in mythic overtones throughout, sort of like The Iliad transposed into the far future. An important aspect of both novels was the Hyperion Cantos, an epic poem describing the historical events leading up to the pilgrimage, the actual pilgrimage itself, and the political situation encompassing it. Martin Silenus, one of the pilgrims, was not only the author of the Cantos but struggled to complete it throughout the two volumes, providing both novels with an even stronger sense of epic mythos.

• In addition to the novel’s intricate plotting, richly developed setting, well-developed characters, and full-throttle pacing, it also had twin themes that were woven so strongly through both novels that Simmons left no doubt they were the purpose the novels were written and everything else was just window dressing. Those themes were death and the search for deity. The Fall of Hyperion examines the death and resurrection of both humans and artificial intelligences as well as the possible death of civilization itself while examining both the need and the method used by humans and artificial intelligences to seek the ultimate intelligence, that is, God.

• The more levels that a novel works on, the more satisfactory the eventual payoff. As I indicated above, The Fall of Hyperion strives for and mostly succeeds on several levels: it’s a sense of wonder extravaganza filled with fascinating, well-developed people in whom we have deep emotional stakes, but it is also plotted like a thriller–what will be the outcome of the war? What is Meina Gladstone really planning and how is the Core involved in it? And what is the purpose of the pilgrimage on Hyperion and, perhaps more importantly, what will be the eventual fates of those pilgrims?–but with both thought-provoking themes that examine important human concerns that certainly qualify it as great literature, and also provocative sense of wonder that qualifies it equally as great science fiction. It is rare indeed when a novel–or, in this case, a pair of novels–can succeed so well on both levels. And while the novel’s ending is a climactic–as well as cataclysmic–one, there is indeed room for a sequel since Simmons leaves us with a much-changed universe and the promise of a new messiah. I for one could not wait to learn what he had in mind for both of them.

Saturday, July 24, 2004


Fifteen years ago I read Dan Simmons’ novels Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and loved them both immensely. Nearly a decade later came Endymion and its sequel The Rise of Endymion, extending the Hyperion pair into a quartet, with rave reviews which rivaled those directed at the first pair. I did not read the latter two though until I had time to read the entire quartet from the start, partly because that would increase my appreciation of the entire series, but also partly because I wanted to relive the joys of the first two again.

I’m pleased to report that Hyperion is just as wonderful the second time around as it was the first time. Simmons’ writing is rich and fulfilling, his worlds colorful and wondrous, his characters quirky but satisfying. The novel combines high science fiction adventure with true sense of wonder and fascinating, well-developed characters, the quintessential combination of New Wave-Old Wave with echoes of Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance on one hand and Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. Le Guin on the other.

For those of you who have never read this novel, it is basically a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of seven pilgrims have been selected by the Church of the Shrike to travel to the world Hyperion and undertake a pilgrimage to the infamous Time Tombs to meet the Shrike. The Shrike is an almost-mythological being which appears unannounced at seemingly random times and locations, usually to kill people for no apparent reason with its blade-encrusted body. Somehow it is connected to the Time Tombs, although nobody knows for sure. And yet its appearances have been more frequent of late, as have its murderous attacks, while strange entropic activity occurring around the site of the Time Tombs has convinced many people that they are about to open.

All seven pilgrims have been to Hyperion before, which leads them to believe they share some connection which is why they were particularly chosen for the pilgrimage. And since the Shrike’s murderous rampage makes it unlikely any of them will survive the encounter, they decide that sharing their previous experiences on Hyperion might provide clues as to the reason for their selections as well as provide them with some clue that might help them survive the meeting with the Shrike.

Each of the seven stories thus serves a double purpose: they forward the overall saga while also being complete in themselves as examinations of one aspect of either Hyperion or the vaster Hegemeny of Worlds, or both. And, taking a cue from Chaucer, the tales are quite varied in both style and intent. Father Hoyt begins with a sociological tale straight out of Michael Bishop’s Transfigurations. He tells of a fellow Jesuit priest who, disgraced in his religious order for various reasons, gives himself the penance of seeking out and studying an aboriginal-type race which are actually descended from ancient travelers to Hyperion who have evolved into true aliens. But the Jesuit soon learns how dealing with aliens is much more difficult in fact than it ever seems to be in fiction, and he finds his life at risk from them until he becomes almost one of them in a shocking, gruesome way that ultimately makes him yearn for the true death which is his only escape from them. This tale combines mystery with anthropology, philosophy with strong emotion, climaxing in a scene so powerful as to be one of the highlights of the entire book.

I was not as excited by the next tale, a powerful war story told by Colonel Kassad. This story is also emotionally-charged, but where the former drew its emotions from a philosophical point of view, this second tale is fueled by raw sexual desire. This story also had a mythological element involving the Shrike, which seemed to link it to scenes to be revealed later. Readers who enjoy gripping, realistic war novels would likely find this tale to their liking. I was anxious to get on to the next tale.

The next pair of stories are a symmetric set. The first is the tale of Martin Silenus, a mad poet who seems to represent all of Simmons’ anger and frustration at the life of a professional writer. Silenus was born in wealth, but soon forced into poverty and struggling to survive on a poverty-stricken world in a job of grunt-like brute labor. But it is there that Silenus’s muse comes to him and he writes an epic poem which miraculously finds its way to a willing editor who publishes it to universal acclaim and the type of fame that strikes one author in a million once a decade or so. But from there Silenus’s life is all downhill, as lightning refuses to strike again, no matter how beautiful are his succeeding poems. He is reduced to writing potboiler bestsellers while wasting away the fortune garnered by his first poem, as his muse gradually abandons him. Finally disgusted, unable to prostitute himself anymore, he joins the remnants of old England’s royal family in their exile on Hyperion and finds his muse returns almost simultaneously as the appearance of the Shrike, which until that moment had been only a half-believed legend, but which now begins a series of random, brutal serial murders, one by one eliminating the entire population of the Hyperion city where Silenus lives, until only he remains, struggling to complete his Hyperion Cantos before the Shrike comes to take him as well, convinced that he is somehow responsible for bringing the Shrike to life as his muse. Simmons excels at climactic scenes, and this tale has a powerful one as well

The mad poet’s tale is followed by the tale of the scholar, calm, restrained Sol Weintraub whose daughter Rachel is an anthropologist who spends several years on Hyperion studying both the Time Tombs and the adjacent Sphinx–whose resemblance to the Egyptian version is in name only. But abruptly one night, as she is alone inside the Sphinx, the entropic activity centered on the Time Tombs swells in a vast tsunami, enveloping Rachel in such a crush of energy that she slips into an immediate coma. Soon the coma eases into deep sleep, then wakefulness, but the doctors examining her find an unexplainable phenomenon has taken place: Rachel is inexplicable aging backwards. And with each passing day her mind loses one more day of memory as she becomes younger and younger. And abruptly in the midst of this tale it becomes apparent to the reader why Sol Weintraub is traveling on the pilgrimage carrying a baby whose age could only have been a few months at most.

Where the poet’s tale was a rush of pyrotechnics, told in the headlong mania suitable for such a pilgrim, the scholar’s tale is calm and carefully measured as befits the teller. This is also a very emotional tale, but this time the emotion is one of sadness and desperation. The tale demonstrates the full extent of Simmons’ talent indeed, since he is fully able to fit the tale to the teller while devising tales so different yet so interconnected as to make them both individually complete and jointly more than the sum of the parts.

Next came the detective’s tale, which was a noir thriller out of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon with two major differences: the detective is the female, and her client is an artificial human having the personality of John Keats implanted into him, who was created by the Artificial Intelligences which basically rule the entire Hegemony from deep in the cybercore. This tale provides much of the overall background of the vast Hegemony in which the series is set, as well as most of the actual plot development that carries through both the framing material of Hyperion and the plot of its sequel The Fall of Hyperion. And it is a fascinating universe that is one step beyond the creations of the 1980s Cyberpunks. Apparently the vast galaxy-wide computer nets which were maintained by AI’s for many centuries eventually outgrew human ability to understand and control, thus they withdrew from human space completely and now share their time between maintaining the order of the universe and engaged in their own philosophical pursuits, including the search for God. Simmons’ ability to fuse a thrilling mystery with such philosophical background is fascinating indeed.

Finally came the Consul’s tale, which was primarily the tender story of a relationship doomed from the very start. He was a crewmember on an interstellar spacecraft operated by the Hegemony government, who only touched down onto a planet’s surface during his periodic R&R. She lived on a sparsely-populated world which was under consideration to join the Hegemony. The world’s populace was mostly in favor of joining even though that would impact the world’s culture as drastically as would the contemporary U.S. absorbing a tiny Indonesian island as its 51st state. But the world also contained a small number of separatists who would do anything to prevent such a fate to their idyllic world. And, not surprisingly, both the consul and his lover got caught smack in the middle of the dispute between the two sides.

An added complication is that since the crewmember spends most of his life aboard a ship traveling at near-lightspeed, he ages considerably slower than his lover does. So when they first meet at the start of the tale he is 19 and she is 16, but by the end of the tale he is 24 physically while she has already died from old age. And one of the main characters at that point in the tale is the crewmember’s second son by his lover, a man who is already twice as old as his father.

Like the detective’s tale, this tale is both a self-contained novella in its own right while also forwarding the overall plot of the Hyperion series. It comes last because it sets the stage for the climactic moment when the pilgrims reach the Time Tombs and finally encounter the Shrike. Which, alas, does not occur in this novel. Hyperion ends as the pilgrims actually reach the tombs–in a lighthearted moment so wonderful it made me laugh out loud (and which I am restraining myself from revealing even though I want to tell it to you soooo badly!)–and await the shrike.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears is primarily known as a writer of genre mysteries about the art world. While I love a good mystery, I am not a big fan of genre mysteries which often resemble puzzles moreso than well-rounded novels. Their pattern tends to contain three parts: crime is committed, investigator investigates crime, crime is solved. Oh, sure, there is often seasoning around the crime puzzle, including characterization (Walter Mosley, Ross McDonald) and ambiance (Ellis Peters), but the puzzle is still so dominant I bore easily of the pattern.

Instead I prefer mysteries which either don’t have a crime or don’t have an investigator, but rather pose a situation which the reader is anxious to unravel as part of a complete plot. My favorite mystery is Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time in which a bedridden police detective undertakes historical research to determine if Richard III of England was actually the monster Shakespeare portrayed him as. Sure it is a mystery, but it consists of a lot more than crime–investigation– denouement.

All of which brings me to Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, one of two recent Pear novels which are as far from genre mysteries as possible because the mysteries are only small aspects of a much larger canvas.

The basic premise of the first 200 page section is that during the late 1600s a young Italian scholar named Marco da Cola travels to England during its post-Civil War Restoration to try to recover his father’s business interests which were stolen by an associate. While there, da Cola resides in Oxford where he pursues his medical research into blood circulation under the sponsorship of chemist Robert Boyle, with associates including fellow doctor John Locke who would become famous years later as a leading philosopher.

While at Oxford da Cola finds himself immersed in the typical arguments of that era such as Protestantism vs. Catholicism and ancient medical knowledge (based on Aristotle and Hippocrates) vs. modern scientific methods (as proposed by René Descartes and Francis Bacon). The first quarter of the book contains several philosophical discussions which were fascinating reading and quite in keeping with the tenor of those late Renaissance times.

Da Cola also becomes involved in the investigation of a murder, the leading suspect being a young girl named Sarah Blundy whose mother is dying and whom da Cola tries to save through the unproven and radical method of blood transfusions. As events unfold we are treated to a believable look at 17th century Restoration England, including life in a college town, a murder trial and subsequent hanging, and accepted medical practices as da Cola and an associate undergo a brief tour of the countryside where they treat patients as traveling physicians.

And all of this occupies only the first quarter of the book! Each subsequent section of the book is a 150-200 page narration by a different person who was a supporting character in da Cola’s narration. People who would otherwise be mere spear-carriers become fully-rounded people themselves. This is an aspect which most novels do not have: after we form impressions of those people based on their minor participation in da Cola’s narration, we are then introduced to them in depth, as well as seeing their own impressions of da Cola and the other narrators.

While each subsequent narrator’s life overlaps da Cola’s story, none are limited to it, so we benefit from three aspects of the four-part story:

1. each character has his own life and attitudes, giving us the chance to learn more about the historical period through the actions of four very different narrators in turn

2. the overlapping portion of the narratives enables us to see both the events of the main storyline and the large cast of characters from several differing viewpoints

3. we also receive totally different perspectives on the murder by each observer who has his own theories supported by clues as to the identity of the murderer

The second narrator is Jack Prescott whom we encounter during da Cola’s narration as the son of a notorious traitor who is himself imprisoned for attacking a reputable citizen. Prescott’s narration describes his attempt to restore the reputation of his father whom he feels was framed for political purposes. Perhaps the most fascinating portion of this narrative is Prescott’s dealings with Sarah Blundy whom he considers a young witch. Where in da Cola’s narration she was merely a headstrong girl, in the second she is viewed as an evil pawn of the devil. So which viewpoint do we readers believe? That’s part of the fascination of the novel, since both views are colored by the attitudes of the narrators, so while there is evidence for both narrators being mistaken, there is no definitive proof either is totally correct.

The third portion is narrated by mathematician John Wallis who is also a cryptographer for the Restoration government. This is the least interesting of the four sections because Wallis is so fanatical in his religious beliefs and so single-minded in his actions that his entire narration is an attempt to find evidence for his preconceived views, no matter how spurious some of those views and much of the evidence is. Both da Cola and Prescott had flaws–some considerable ones in the latter case–but only Wallis’ narration is totally colored by his flaws, so we see little of the depth of the man himself, and view none of the other characters with the shades of gray that both de Cola’s and Prescott’s narratives provide.

So where Wallis’ views of the events differs considerably with that of the other narrators, it is too easy to dismiss his as the rantings of a fanatic rather than plausible alternate views.

The fourth portion is the most interesting for several reasons. The narrator is Anthony Wood, a historian who has no private agenda compromising his narration, but rather is totally devoted to facts and uncovering the truth. Not that he is merely a passive bystander, for he is intimately involved in the affairs of several of the other leading characters, even so far as becoming the lover of Sarah Blundy. It is through Wood that we learn some of the flaws in the previous narrations, as well as how in some instances the conflicting evidence of the first three narrators actually mesh. And we learn many of the unanswered questions in the book, including the true explanation behind the political dealings which so obsessed both Prestcott and Wallis and led directly to the hanging of Sarah Blundy.

Overall I found An Instance of the Fingerpost a wonderful book, from its intricate plot which unwound slowly in an absorbing and almost circular manner, to its well-rounded and intriguing cast of characters, to Pears’ writing itself. While not beautiful writing per se, it was rich and deep, with every sentence adding to the depth of Restoration England. Gradually I felt drawn into the world and its inhabitants and truly understood their attitudes and beliefs. This is one of the finest books I’ve read in recent years and is very highly recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Ruled Britannia

Since I love historical fiction second only to science fiction, it is not surprising that alternate history is one of my favorite sub-genres.  Harry Turtledove is probably the master of that sub-genre, but most of his novels are part of long, involved series which I have neither the time nor the inclination to get involved in.  So when he published the stand-alone novel Ruled Britannia, I bought it eagerly as soon as it appeared in the Science Fiction Book Club.  This wonderful book succeeds equally because of its fascinating plot as well as its detailed views of three aspects of Elizabethan England: life during that era in general, life in a drama troupe, including considerable looks at both the writing and rehearsal process, and life for the Protestant English under the heel of Roman Catholic invaders.

The plot revolves around a group of former advisors to Queen Elizabeth, whose life was spared by King Philip of Spain who ordered her imprisoned in the Tower of London where she has
remained for the ten years since the victory of the Spanish Armada.  With King Philip lying on his deathbed, Elizabeth’s advisors have decided the time has come to foment a revolution against the Spanish, and they decide the revolt should be spearheaded through the presentation of a new Shakespearean play.  The playwright is convinced to write a play detailing the historical revolt of the ancient English against Roman rule, with obvious references to the situation currently taking place in England.

The story details every aspect of the planned revolt as well as activities peripheral to it:

1. Shakespeare’s actual writing the play

2. rehearsals in which the participants strive to keep all information about the play from leaking to the Spanish

3. Shakespeare being hired by the Spanish rulers to write a play in honor of King Philip to be presented upon his death, ironically the same time he is supposed to present the play fomenting
the revolt

4. Kit Marlowe, would-be revolutionary who incurred the wrath of the Spanish because of his homosexuality

5.  Spanish officer Lope de Vega, a budding playwright himself, befriends Shakespeare, and is subsequently assigned to spy on him, thus spending too much time mingling with the drama troupe for their safety’s sake

6.  Cicely Sellis, a suspected witch who shares a boarding house with Shakespeare and proves to be a major character in the revolt

7.  a cast of minor characters who flit in and out of the plot as needed, many real historical people whose lives were “tweaked” by Turtledove to fit his altered scenario.

For example, Turtledove explains in his Historical Note that the real Lope de Vega was the most acclaimed medieval playwright in Spanish history who was an officer on the Spanish Armada, and one of the few survivors who returned to Spain to undertake his writing
career. This fit in so well with his role in the novel–which was the most important role after that of Shakespeare himself–that it gave the novel an authenticity which might not have occurred had the author used entirely fictional characters other than the few obvious ones (Shakespeare, Elizabeth).

The climax of the novel is the revolt itself, which lasts about 100 pages, and is very graphic and
somewhat bloody at times, perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, but that is my only complaint with a well-plotted, thoughtful novel which successfully combines the best of speculative fiction and historical fiction.  I recommend this novel highly indeed.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Voyage of the Narwhal

Novels of discovery are among the oldest, most time-honored forms of fiction in existence. The Odyssey fit that category as did The Aeneid and the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West. In the Twentieth Century, novels of discovery generally fall into two sub-types: adventure novels and sense-of-wonder novels. Adventures are simpler to write and run the gamut from pulp adventures to rich, worthy epics. Sense-of-wonder novels are more difficult to write because they require keeping the reader intellectually stimulated without falling back on many of the clichés at the disposal of adventure writers. Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is a science fictional prototype of this sub-genre.

Being a fairly demanding reader, I prefer adventure novels that straddle the line between both adventure and sense-of-wonder but which also at least sneak over the line into literature. Thus I was quite excited when Andrea Barrett published her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal. She proved to me with her collection Ship Fever and her novel The Middle Kingdom that she can indeed combine sense-of-wonder–mostly in her love of scientific research, particularly natural science–with adventure and literature. But experience warned me not to expect too much from this novel, since high expectations often lead to resounding crashes.

But not in this case. The Narwhal is a ship traveling between Greenland and Canada in the late 19th century, headed for the Arctic. Apparently that was a popular direction for exploration, and the Narwhal undertakes the rigorous voyage for the usual reasons men engage in such brutal, risky voyages: the naturalist protagonist is seeking specimens from icy northern locales; the captain is seeking personal aggrandizement by discovering the fate of a famous voyager named Captain Franklin who vanished along with his ship while on a similar voyage of discovery years earlier. Franklin’s wife has been encouraging rescue missions, and the media has given such missions the type of publicity which encourages fame-seekers even more.

The first half of the book describes the voyage. Barrett is no wide-eyed adventurer though, and she examines the full extent of the voyage’s brutality and hardships. The captain is soon revealed as an egotist totally pre-occupied with achieving personal fame even at the cost of the lives of his crews and himself. His stubbornness causes the ship to be iced-in during the long winter of 1855-6 which caused incredible hardship on the part of his entire crew. Several people die in accidents caused by the unstable ice, everybody suffers from malnutrition and scurvy, from ice blindness and frostbite, from intense cabin fever and lack of productive activity.

By the time the long winter ends, it is obvious the ship is totally icebound and cannot even escape during the brief thawing of summer. After the captain leaves across the bay to Greenland for his own personal voyage of discovery–the entire weary, frozen crew refusing to accompany him–the remaining crew members wait until the last possible moment to flee on foot before being iced in by another icy, deadly winter. Thus begins an overland voyage with crew members alternately pulling sleds across ice and rowing through occasional open water. By the time they reach a whaling fleet which is itself winter-bound off the coast of Greenland, several people are dead and the others have all suffered permanent injury.

In the telling this all sounds fairly depressing, and at times it is, but Barrett balances harsh realism with sense-of-wonder, the latter mostly coming through the novel’s point of view character Erasmus Wells. A naturalist by profession, he spends the voyage serving both as the captain’s associate and as the ship naturalist. Hence we share rich portions of the life of a naturalist in the frozen northland, gathering both animal and vegetable specimens and relishing every new discovery. But we are also faced with the tribulations in which Erasmus is involved, tribulations caused by the nature of the voyage and the frequent irrationality of the captain. Erasmus’ personality does not make him a suitable foil to the captain, giving in meekly to the captain’s most outrageous demands. At times I wanted to scream as he went along with obviously flawed leadership because he was either unable or refused to protest against the orders of a less-than-reliable authority figure. But it wasn’t totally Erasmus’ fault; after all, the story’s setting was the 19th century, far removed from the late 20th, and people then were much more likely to follow their leaders to the death than to question their every slip and show of weakness.

And that’s only the first half of the novel. The second half takes place back in Philadelphia and examines the aftermath of the voyage. How an amazingly-similar expedition under a Captain Kane arrived back a few months earlier with Kane being widely hailed as a hero; but when Erasmus leads the survivors of his voyage back they are reviled in the press as traitors for abandoning their icebound ship and their captain, even though their situation is amazingly similar to that of the charismatic Captain Kane. Where the first half of the novel was a tale of exploration and sense-of-wonder encased in a winter’s wrapping of personal motivation and developing personal relationships during times of great tribulation, the second half is a study of failure on the part of Erasmus who must learn to live with being widely considered as a traitor, and celebrity on the part of the Narwhal’s captain who miraculously returns to Philadelphia accompanied by two Eskimos and writes a book about his adventures, blithely assuming most of the heroic actions on the voyage were his own, but all of the failures were attributable to his crew. Hailed by the press nearly as much as Captain Kane, he begins a worldwide tour describing his exploits and presenting his two Eskimos to the world.

To describe The Voyage of the Narwhal in a nutshell, it is a novel about failure and salvation. About the failure of the voyage itself; about how the captain salvages something from the failure through carefully-orchestrated lies and deception; about Erasmus’ personal failures as a member of the voyage and in his life back in Philadelphia. But it is also a novel of salvation. For a long time Erasmus does nothing to defend either his reputation, as he certainly has the right since, in many ways, he was indeed the hero of the voyage while the captain was truly the villain–although that is not how either the media or the public view it in hindsight and ignorance–or to defend his home and family from the captain who marries Erasmus’ sister and virtually takes over his house. But when it becomes obvious that the two Eskimos are suffering in their new environment, indeed dying, Erasmus’ anger is aroused enough to make him rebel against his personality weaknesses and take a stand.

The Voyage of the Narwhal contains many high points indeed, and represents Andrea Barrett at the very peak of her talent. Although it is certainly not science fiction–and even the most broad-minded critic would have difficulty fitting it into the alternate history sub-genre–it definitely satisfies all the same requirements that the best SF offers, as well as all the best literature offers. I recommend this book very highly.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Perdido Street Station

Every few years I read a novel with which I absolutely fall in love. In the late 1990s I fell in love with a wondrous seafaring novel (Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwal) and a lush historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary France (Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun). Considering how realistic both those books were, who would have expected that my first literary love of the new century would be an exotic, off-the-wall adventure set in an alternate London where magic and science fiction mingle seemingly interchangeably?

If you love science fiction set as far from our real world as possible, where the very landscape sings with originality, where nearly all the main characters ooze creativity, then hurry and read China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It is the story of a scientist named Isaac who is in love with a nonhuman insectoid artist named Lin. As the story opens, they share moments of each other’s lives while she pursues her art and he his research.

Isaac undertakes a seemingly impossible task of trying to help Yagharek, a wingless garudo (think of an earthbound cross between a devil and a human) who was punished for some unknown offense by having his wings clipped. Meanwhile Lin is hired by an underworld leader named Motley, who is a grotesque former human now resembling a conglomerate of semi-human beings, to make a sculpture of himself. Neither tells the other of their assignment, although their activities inadvertently come together when Isaac, while studying the wing-structure of flying creatures, receives from one of his sources a caterpillar which grows into a deadly slake-moth. It escapes from Isaac’s cage and frees 4 of its fellows, whereupon the four of them begin a reign of terror tormenting the city.

It turned out that Motley held the other four slake-moths and was milking their fluids to sell as a powerful drug. He finds out that Isaac was responsible for his loss, and immediately assumes Lin was somehow involved in the imagined theft as well.

Thus becomes a fast-paced thriller: Motley seeks Isaac, while the city is under attack by the slake-moths; Isaac, Derkhan (a writer for an anti-government underground newspaper) and Yagharek try to kill the moths, while the dictatorial mayor seeks help against the moths from hell-demons (who refuse to get involved), a Weaver (a supernatural spider with amazing powers and incomprehensible motives), and Remades (who, like Motley, are part-human, part-artificial beings).

Perdido Street Station offers a bit of everything the best science fiction has to offer, from Vancian atmosphere to Zelaznyish mythological underpinings, from Delanyish wild creativity to Cyberpunkish noir. And yet, beneath this wild exterior beats a totally-human interior, with characters you can believe in and empathize with, in a fully-developed world filled with so many throwaway ideas that a lesser writer would have milked an entire double-trilogy out of it.

Most important of all, Miéville never loses sight of the purpose of great fiction: the people. They never become pawns in his plotline, but remain the focal point of his concern, and ours as well. So while he has us gasping in wonder, and gasping for breath, we are also gasping with joy or sorrow or concern for Isaac, Lin, Derkhan, and the many other characters who pass through their lives.

Perdido Street Station is a great, great novel in the tradition of the wildest, most outré science fiction and fantasy. If you liked Vance or Zelazny or Wolfe or Delany, I recommend this book very highly indeed. China Miéville is definitely the first great fantastic novelist of the 21st century.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I am not certain if Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will appeal to all readers of Visions of Paradise as much as it appealed to me, but I also suspect that those of you who do like it will love it as much as I did. It is a truly wondrous book which combines several aspects successfully: a coming of age novel about two young men growing up in Brooklyn at the outset of World War II; the story of an immigrant struggling to make the adaptation to a new land, an adaptation made even more wrenching by the knowledge that his Jewish family was still trapped in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi reign of terror; a love story about a romantic triangle among three people who all love each other deeply; and what really made the novel special to me was its main focus, the story of two young men who are the writer and artist for a comic book entitled The Escapist.

In the rush of money-grubbing publishers jumping on the suddenly lucrative comic book bandwagon soon after the introduction of Superman in 1938, the creators of The Escapist sign away all their rights and most of their profits to the character, not unlike Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman. The book lovingly describes the creation of The Escapist by the two boys, how they market him to a publisher, how the monthly comics are produced by a team of equally-young, equally-inexperienced writers and artists, how the comic grows in popularity to become a radio show and then a movie, and what that success does to the comic’s creators. We follow their lives during and after World War II when the writer leaves comic writing for “serious” writing until financial circumstances force him back into comics, while the artist participates in World War II and we see the aftermath of its traumatic events on his life.

Besides the main foçi, the novel has several minor threads which are equally well-done. The artist is an amateur magician, devoted to the life and talents of Harry Houdini–from which the original idea for the Escapist arises–and we are immersed in that world briefly. The writer struggles with homosexuality, and we follow him through those trials and their resulting effects on his life.

It’s a cliché that every science fiction fan has a different Golden Age, but my personal Golden Age overlapped my twin discoveries of comic books and science fiction, and I still have warm and fuzzy feelings about both my first sf magazines–primarily Pohl-era Galaxy–and such comic book heroes as Green Lantern, Hawkman and Justice League of America. Kavalier and Clay recalls those memories and the corresponding warm feelings, but does so as one facet of a wonderful story with delightful characters wrapped in such exquisite writing that the language itself was a total delight. I recommend this book to everybody, but even moreso to those of you who grew up on comic books as I did. I suspect that some of the Pulitzer Prize voters must have been secret comic book readers as children, since why else would such a stodgy committee select this wonderful book as their winner for fiction a few years ago?