Dan Simmons’ ‘Endymion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-endymionFor some people Endymion is the weakest part of the entire Hyperion Cantos.  Those people are nuts.

Let me preface this review by pointing out that each of the four books in the series has a different feel to it.  The first novel, Hyperion, being partly inspired by The Canterbury Tales, is essentially episodic.  It’s sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, can be considered a political thriller with a bit of military sci-fi tossed in.  This third book in the series is undeniably a chase novel, and a hair-raising one at that . . .

Nearly three hundred years after the fall of the Hegemony of Man at the end of second novel, the Catholic Church, once on the verge of extinction, has now filled the void left by the Hegemony’s collapse, becoming the dominant governmental power in the galaxy, largely through its military wing, the Pax.  Meanwhile, a certain irascible poet by the name of Martin Silenus is still kicking around Hyperion, though barely, but he still has quite a lot of pull on the planet.  He manages to save Raul Endymion, a young man convicted of murdering a Catholic citizen (which Raul himself is not), from execution, and all he asks of Raul in return is the impossible.  Raul’s primary task is to escort Silenus’s 12-year-old niece Aenea to her destination across the galaxy.  The problem is, the all-powerful Church wants the girl for their own murky and sinister reasons.  As it so happens, Aenea is the daughter of another former Shrike pilgrim, Brawne Lamia, and her cybrid lover John Keats, and she is poised to become a powerful and transformative force in her own right, one who may threaten the very existence of the Church.  Of course, this being a Hyperion Cantos novel, nothing is quite what it seems.  Nevertheless, the Church will pursue Raul, Aenea and their android friend A. Bettik to the ends of the galaxy to capture the little girl.

The primary representative of the Church herein is one Father Captain Francisco de Soya, a devoted priest and soldier of the Pax who believes his mission to capture the girl is a righteous one but eventually comes to doubt whether she is the monster her superiors believe her to be.  Perhaps more than any other antagonist in the series, de Soya is a dynamic and three-dimensional character.  With any story which sets up a dystopian future where the bad guys are members of some massive ruling entity, it is easy for a writer to sketch them as malevolent, unnuanced caricatures, but Simmons largely manages to avoid this pitfall in Endymion.  Instead, we get well-trained, high-tech soldiers who are true believers, which, for my money, makes them even more frightening than if they were just mad finger-steepling scoundrels.  De Soya is the ultimate knight of the Church, a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.  But he is also a truly moral man, a fact that sometimes puts him at odds with the Church he serves, which has become rife with corruption.

And what of our three main protagonists?  Raul Endymion himself is a classic adventuring daredevil, the weary loner who becomes the reluctant hero–something of a cross between Han Solo and every action character ever played by Kurt Russell.  Sure, he’s a bit of a stereotype if you get right down to it, but he feels more like an homage to heroes past than just another generic lovable rogue.  Aenea is another kind of trope: a wonder child.  She’s a super-genius for starters, but she also has some powers which are initially ill-defined but take on greater significance as the story progresses.  Then we have A. Bettik, a blue-skinned android, a being genetically engineered to be much stronger and tougher to kill than a normal human.  If there is a character who could stand some fleshing out, it is A. Bettik, who is far too subservient (he was bred that way) and often seems to be there merely for the sake of his enhanced abilities rather than as a legit member of the team.  Early in the story there is also a sentient spaceship, but it’s hardly there long enough to make much of an impression.  Finally, there is our old friend the Shrike, who serves as Aenea’s bodyguard at times (much to her consternation, since the creature’s overriding philosophy seems to be: terminate with extreme prejudice) but mostly just watches from the sidelines.

Though the story zips along at a breakneck pace, Simmons still manages to work in scenes of humor and warmth, particularly near the beginning.  One of my favorite points in the book is when Aenea decides to use their spaceship’s advanced force field tech to create a zero-g ball of water that she and Raul use as a floating swimming pool, an early bonding moment for the two and a demonstration of the girl’s ingenuity and fearlessness in the face of danger.

As our plucky heroes make their way through a series of worlds by way of farcasters (which only seem to work for Aenea and her protectors now . . . there’s a reason for that), de Soya and his soldiers triangulate in on them as they race towards their destiny.  Yes, it’s a bracing adventure tale, but it’s more than that too.  As with the other books in this series, Simmons exploits the literary concepts that undergird his work–mainly the deus ex machina in this case–in exceedingly clever ways, giving it a tasty dash of postmodernism without letting it slip into pretentious territory.  As always, the author’s love for the literary medium itself, be it in the form of poetry or fiction, is the very soul of the Hyperion Cantos, and Endymion is no exception.  Given that one of the themes of the series is man’s place in the universe and how he holds up against much greater intelligences, some of whom believe mankind to be obsolete, it makes sense that our capacity to create art and literature is the very thing that redeems humanity, and which Simmons celebrates throughout the series both implicitly and explicitly in numerous ways.  What else can I really say?

Grade: A+ 

The Southern Culture of Violence

Although I was born in Michigan and lived there intermittently over the course of my forty-two years, I grew up in rural Tennessee and still live there today.  I am half Southern by blood (my mom’s family is from Arkansas) and have spent the majority of my life here.  I love the South.  It’s a beautiful place to live: the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, the winding country roads.  But I have to admit that there is something terribly wrong here, and that something is an entrenched culture of poverty and violence.  Some of the talking heads here will claim that the problem only exists in the urban areas, but don’t be fooled.  I have never lived in a Southern city, only on the fringes of small towns, with the closest metropolitan areas of any real size an hour’s drive away from me, and I see the effects of poverty here everyday.

For privacy reasons I will not identify the town I live in at this point, but I would like to compare it to a town in Michigan I once lived in, also to remain unnamed.  That town–let’s call it Town M–was once identified as one of the five hundred best small towns in America (it was in a book!)  When I was growing up, it had–at one time or another–an independent book store, an arcade and a music store.  Today there are art galleries, bars and microbreweries in the town, and street art is prominently displayed.  It has brick sidewalks with permanent metal benches interspersed throughout.  It’s a beautiful place.  There’s an annual multi-day Summerfest in this town.  It even has suburbs for its middle class.

By contrast,  the Tennessee town–which I will dub Town T–has virtually nothing in the way of entertainment (unless you consider Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly to be entertainment).  There is a movie theater, but Town M has one of those too.  There are fast food joints, a handful of independently own restaurants, a newspaper, and a whole bunch of stores, banks and churches.  That’s about it.  It’s a grubby and unattractive town.  And it is not a town geared towards young people; nor is it interested in growth.  Its leaders are all about maintaining the status quo, nothing more.  There was a bookstore here at one time, but it was aimed mostly at serving Christians, and it was short-lived.  There is virtually no middle class here–there is a small number of wealthy citizens and a ton of poor people.  (Guess which group I belong to?)

And there is the heart of the problem that infects the South.  This is a place devoted to the outmoded notion of trickle-down economics, which any decent economist will tell you is nonsense and doesn’t work.  But the South is a conservative culture with a lot of desperately poor folks who are still living on the fumes of hope for the American Dream, who are told by their religious leaders that if they bear the hardships of this life, they will be heartily rewarded in the next.  And so they continue to endure this hell instead of working on making it better.  Meanwhile, it is wholly infested with the shallow and the meaningless, as well as the outright self-destructive–the worst aspects of commercialism run rampant, a strange contrast to its purported spirituality.

This is the reality of the modern South, and it has come with a high price.  Let me explain.  When I lived in Town M, I knew only one person connected to a murder, and it was a distant one: the father of a girl I went to elementary school with killed two elderly women over money.  And I certainly didn’t know anyone who was murdered.  Not so here.  Since I’ve lived here, I have known of no less than four murders with less than three degrees of separation from me, and in three of the four cases I knew the victims.  If we break them down, two of the victims died by firearms, one by stabbing and choking, the last partly by vehicular homicide and partly by being burnt alive.  Three of the four were intrafamilial murders, and all four were crimes of passion.  Three of the victims were female, one male, and all were killed by males.  These murders had different motives: one was over a breakup and the killer being turned in for other crimes, one was over a payment dispute, the third was over drugs, and I do not know the motive for the last murder.  But the uniting factor for all of these is that both victim and perpetrator were poor.

Violence is also at the heart of the recent debate over the Confederate flag.  The rallying cry of those defending its continued public use is that it represents heritage rather than hate and bigotry, but this argument has been soundly drubbed by Lonn Taylor in his article The Confederate Flag’s Big Lie.  The flag in question was not, in fact, the standard of the Confederate “nation” (as it were); it was a flag created specifically for the war, since the official Confederate flag was too difficult to distinguish from Old Glory in the heat of battle.  Hence, it is a flag attached to violence by design: a battle flag.  Moreover, as Taylor explains, it was never associated with Southern “heritage” until the 1950s, when the Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a way to protest civil rights advances, and Southerners–including some state governments–simply carried that concept further.  Segregation itself was a violent affair, predicated on keeping blacks in their own mini-reservations, separating them from white-designated locations and arenas by force if need be.  To say nothing of slavery, the continued practice of which Southern Americans fought and killed their fellow countrymen to try to protect.

Today, however, Southern violence is largely directed at other Southerners.  For a region of people famous for their pride, it seems they are awful willing to hurt and kill their fellow Southerners.  Indeed, the South is consistently the most violent region in the US and has been for decades.  Going by state alone, my own–Tennessee–often makes the top of that list every year.  Anyway, guess what else the South is tops in?  If you said poverty, ding ding, you win the prize!  And we’re also number one in obesity, thanks largely to a diet high in fatty and fried foods.  I see this as another facet of Southern violence, only turned inward, against themselves.  Perhaps it stems from guilt and insecurity, or something similar.  Maybe deep down most Southerners really do feel awful about their shameful history, but they can’t express it outwardly because they fear being an outsider in their own society.  So they punish themselves by eating badly.  Ha!  Armchair psychology, I admit.

At any rate, the South is clearly afraid of progress.  Many here still resent those Yankees for trouncing them during the Civil War.  They may not always say it openly, but it’s just beneath the surface of their conversations about the “federal government” taking away their rights.  Here that term is just code-speak for “outsiders”, meaning anyone who comes into the South and mucks up their way of life.  And the debate over keeping the Confederate flag prominently displayed really comes down to the fact that Southerners resent being reminded that they lost the Civil War, and that it will never be ‘business as usual’ here ever again.  Nobody holds a grudge like a Southerner.  Trust me: I’ve seen it too many times.  This is, I think, where the violence stems from, at least in part.  Far from dying out, racism is still woven into the very fabric of Southern life and thought.  Segregation, though no longer enforced in any official capacity, is still imposed unofficially by white Southerners refusing to sell certain property to blacks or other races, and keeping their distances from them in other ways too.  Don’t get me wrong: there are some genuinely tolerant and open-minded white people in the South (I’m one of them), but they are a small minority.

Ironically, the newly stoked controversy over the so-called “rebel flag” and the mass shooting of blacks by an avowed white supremacist which caused it happened to fall in the same time frame as the historic Supreme Court vote that assures the legal protection of gay marriage throughout the nation, and the rainbow flag has since been waving vigorously across the land.  There was even a meme floating around Facebook which said something to the effect of, “My Facebook looks like a war broke out between the Confederacy and a Skittles factory.”  We may make light of it, but there is something intrinsic about the Culture War in there.  In the larger sense, the fight between conservatives and liberals is really about fear vs. love, with conservatives defending a culture of fear and liberals defending a culture of love.

Think of it this way: conservatives embrace largely two things, small government and strong religious values, the former because they do not trust others and the latter because they do not trust themselves.  Conservatism is an inherently cynical worldview, a highly negative and paranoid way of looking at reality.  It suggests that outsiders (be they other nations, other religions, other powers, etc.) are to be feared and violently opposed.  Hence, we get a huge military, strong anti-Muslim sentiment, massive opposition to any large, centrally organized government, and so on.  Given its attachment to religion–which is ultimately just a glorified death cult (it’s about spending your life in preparation for death and whatever comes after)–and its love of violence to solve problems, conservatism is also about death.  In contrast, liberalism is about trust: trusting individuals to guide their own morality and trusting the government to properly take care of its people.  Trust arises out of affection, which is to say, love.  Liberalism is therefore a culture of love.  It embraces diversity for the sake of diversity and human well-being.  It says that, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay.  We will survive by accepting transformation, not by avoiding it.  Indeed, the scientific principle of evolution teaches that those most likely to survive long-term are the ones most susceptible to change.  It’s really no wonder conservatives despise it: it goes against everything they believe.  So, yes, conservatism is a philosophy of stasis, and stasis is death.  Growth comes about through change, and anything that does not change either dies or readies itself for death.  There are no other options.  To stand still is to give in to entropy, that steady march of the universe towards chaos.

And so, South, I love ya, but it’s time for you to change.  It’s time to give up your outmoded and archaic worldview.  If you don’t, your culture will eventually perish, swallowed up by its own violence and stagnation.  You should’ve learned your lesson by now: you cannot have your Johnny Reb cake and eat it too.  Lose the racism, paranoia and delusions of a heritage worth defending and move into the 21st century.  Come on, you can make the leap; it’s not that far.  And we’ll be waiting . . .

Additional Resources:

Secession, the Confederate Flag and Slavery

The Truth About Confederate History, Part 1 (Snopes)

I Have a Message for Those Who Claim the Confederate Flag Represents Their Heritage

Flags of the Confederate States of America (Wikipedia)

Dan Simmons’ ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-fall-hyperionI don’t know why, but I have a bad habit of picking up series during the second book.  It seems like book two in a series always falls into my lap before I get hold of book one, and such was the case with Simmons’ The Fall of Hyperion.  I first read this shortly after graduating from high school, and although I was missing a great deal of information by not having read Hyperion first, I still enjoyed it immensely and knew I had to read the earlier volume, but I set aside this goal for awhile and forgot about it for several years.  I’m glad I did, because by the time I returned to these books, the entire tetralogy was complete and I was able to purchase the whole series at once, something I never do.  I devoured them all the summer after I graduated from college–an awful summer, in fact, and this series was one of the few saving graces for me that year.  I now consider The Hyperion Cantos collectively to be among my top ten books of all time, and that is saying something because I have a lot of favorite books.

The Fall of Hyperion tells us what becomes of the seven Shrike pilgrims now that they have reached the Time Tombs, but it also fleshes out the story of Meina Gladstone, the leader of the Hegemony of Man, as she deals with a coming war with the Ousters that looms large throughout this novel.  Bridging these two plot elements is yet another Keats cybrid–this time going by the name of Joseph Severn–whose dreams are linked to the pilgrims.  Severn serves as an adviser to Gladstone and is, for all intents and purposes, the narrator of the novel.

What’s particularly beautiful about this book is how absolutely amazingly Simmons ties up the stories of the Shrike pilgrims, whose lives turn out to be more connected than the first book let on.  And all of the pilgrims, including the cantankerous poet Martin Silenus (one of my favorite characters in the series) get to be heroes in their own way this time around.  Characters with fairly small roles in Hyperion–Amelio Arundez, the Consul’s friend Theo Lane, and so on–appear again with expanded roles.  Simmons is extremely generous to his characters in ways that feel both natural and dignified–even those who perish horribly (there is one key character whose death near the end of the novel can only be described as George R.R. Martin-level shocking) are ultimately redeemed.

Then there’s our old friend the Shrike, that time-traveling death machine whose nature is utterly impenetrable.  We do learn quite a bit more about him here, and yet it only seems to add to his mysteriousness and his monstrosity.  Yet he feels like an essential part of this universe, a sci-fi devil whose cold silver cruelty stands in stark contrast to the  golden humanity of the other characters.  Even the Ousters–who are a sort of futuristic analogue to the fair folk of fantasy, those beings who are somewhere between human, angel and spirit–aren’t quite the dreadful enemies we learned they were in Hyperion.  Indeed, The Fall of Hyperion is a novel that, although it describes the collapse of perhaps the greatest human empire of all time, is ultimately about the unquenchable beating heart of that same humanity.  No matter what we are subjected to, mankind endures.

Now, the book does delve a bit into some ideas that will probably prove a little frustrating to those fans of hard SF who don’t like their chosen religion of Pure Science tainted by mysticism.  (People who hated Interstellar, I’m looking at you.)  But for the rest of us, this all feels beyond true in the same sense that G.K. Chesterton ascribed to fairy tales.  This, to me, is what good sci-fi has always been about–not the comfort and safety of the perfectly believable but the very edge of believability, that rich realm of the imagination where the reader isn’t quite sure if its possible or not, and thus it becomes wondrous and transcendent.  Modern science fiction has largely gravitated away from this realm, much to its deficit in my estimation.  It is a genre that used to be daring and dazzling and even a little dangerous.  Now it has become oppressed by the weight of those twin yokes of political correctness and scientific accuracy.  Blech.  I consider Simmons to be one of a dying breed of sci-fi writers–the inheritors of the New Wave, who took the softness of New Wave sci-fi and brought it down to earth.  But enough about that for now–I have a whole essay planned about this very topic coming soon!

Anyway, Dan Simmons . . . this dude can write.  This and the horror novel Carrion Comfort (I can’t recall which of these I actually read first) was my introduction to Simmons; I have been a devoted fan ever since.  And I think once you have read the Hyperion Cantos you probably will be too.  If you love imaginative fiction and good storytelling, you simply can’t afford to miss this series.  From the thoroughly original take on AIs to the bizarre nature of the planet Hyperion to the obvious affection Simmons has for classic literature, references to which are spread lavishly throughout the books, this is science fiction at its utmost.  It is a thing of beauty, and you know what Keats said about that . . .

Grade: A+

I, Steampunk

I don’t generally like to just post photos of myself on the internet without some reason, and up till now I have avoided posting photos of me on this blog altogether, but I figured I would share this image because it’s fun.  I took an existing photo of someone dressed in steampunk fashion and pasted my own head (from a family photo taken twenty years ago) on it, which amuses my greatly.  I chose this particular steampunk figure because of the mechanical right hand, which is the hand that I am actually missing, so it fit.  I use the head shot from this image (with a different background color) for my io9 avatar and elsewhere on the interwebz.  I hope you enjoy it because I’m not likely to post any more photos of myself for awhile. :)

Indigo Xix as a steampunk dude
Indigo Xix as a steampunk dude

My Dream Cast – ‘Hyperion’

Alright, so I just recently reread one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion.  There have been rumors of a film or TV series based on this book floating around for years, with SyFy supposedly planning to film it at one point, but that never materialized.  It’s too bad, because this whole book series is just aching for a cinematic adaptation of some sort, especially the first book.  As with the Dune film, if I were making this, I have some pretty specific people in mind for the key roles.  Although most of these actors where not who I initially pictured, I have come to see them as the best choices if the film were to start shooting today.  So let’s begin with . . .

The Consul (Hugh Laurie)

Hyp-Consul
Hugh Laurie; Consul from ‘Hyperion Characters’ by Liam Syles Chang

He’s the informal leader of the Shrike pilgrims and the last character to tell his tale, which involves a huge secret with respect to the Ousters which is vastly important in the scheme of the entire series.  He’s a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders and as such he is bound to look haunted and haggard.  Who better to portray him than Hugh Laurie, who may be the most haunted-looking man in Hollywood?  Laurie, who is best known for playing Dr. House in the eponymous series, can grow his hair out a bit and put on about fifteen or twenty pounds and I doubt anyone would be more suitable to play this key role.  And with Laurie set to appear in the upcoming Tomorrowland, I’m guessing he will have a built-in science fiction fan base very soon.

DeviantArt: T0nkatsu 

Fedmahn Kassad (Naveen Andrews)

Naveen Andrews; 'Kassad' by Gabriel Sandoval
Naveen Andrews; ‘Kassad’ by Gabriel Sandoval

Colonel Fedmahn Kassad is a member of FORCE and is definitely a badass.  Middle Easterners don’t often get a positive portrayal in American media, let alone in science fiction, so Kassad is an interesting anomaly.  One of the few actors I could think of who could fill those shoes is Naveen Andrews, who is actually of Indian descent rather than Palestinian like Kassad, but he’s probably the closest we are going to get out of Hollywood, because there are just not a lot of choices here.  Nevertheless, I am confident that Naveen Andrews would do an amazing job as the clever and tough-as-nails soldier who vows to take on the Shrike single-handedly.

DeviantArt: Gabos

Lenar Hoyt (David Tennant)

David Tennant; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from 'Hyperion' by Kwenos
David Tennant; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from ‘Hyperion’ by Kwenos

This was actually one of the toughest choices for me.  Who is fit to play a man who starts out as a humble, long-suffering servant of God and ultimately becomes one of the major villains of the later books in the series?  There were several worthy candidates, but ultimately I had to go with Tennant, who sci-fi geeks will immediately recognize as the Tenth Doctor from long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who.  I don’t know why but I just have a feeling that Tennant would knock this one out of the park.  And let’s face it: you know you want to see Tennant play a pope, which, if the whole book series was filmed, you would eventually get to see.

Martin Silenus (Harvey Fierstein)

Harvey Fierstein; Mask of Silenus
Harvey Fierstein; Mask of Silenus

I have read Hyperion twice now, and each time I had either a vague picture in my head of most characters or had different people in mind each time.  But one character has always been clear in my head as to who should portray him and always will be, no matter how many times I read it.  That character is the poet Martin Silenus, and in my mind only one person can ever play him: Harvey Fierstein.  Silenus is a rotund little satyr of a man (no, really–at one point he literally has himself surgically remade into a satyr), a snide, vulgar-tongued hedonist through-and-through, but also, as befitting a poet, a man capable of great insight and beauty.  Simmons also describes him as having a deep and distinctive voice, which is what initially made me picture Fierstein, and the more I thought about it, the more perfect this particular actor felt to me, to the point where now it would seem a great travesty if he wasn’t cast as Martin Silenus!

Brawne Lamia (Gina Carano)

hyp-brawne
Gina Carano; Brawne Lamia from ‘Hyperion Characters’ by Liam Syles Chang

Brawne originates from the high-gravity world of Lusus, and Lusians tend to be muscular and powerful thanks to the additional g-forces they are subjected to.  Meanwhile, Carano originates from the high-badassity world of mixed martial arts, but she has also done some acting, most notably in Fast & Furious 6.  I have no doubt that she has what it takes to play Brawne, a private detective who gets in over her head when she takes on a case that turns out to have strong connections to the TechnoCore, a bunch of super-advanced AIs, some of whom would like to help humanity become extinct.

Sol Weintraub (John Landis)

John Landis;  'Sol and Rachel Weintraub' by Victor González
John Landis; ‘Sol and Rachel Weintraub’ by Victor González

Okay, Landis is primarily a director, but he has done some acting as well, including in such genre classics as Death Race 2000, Darkman, Spider-Man 2 and (a cameo appearance in) Stephen King’s The Stand television miniseries.  He’s smart, he’s Jewish, he’s the right age and most importantly, he looks exactly the way I picture the scholar from Barnard’s World in my head.  Can’t you just see him cradling baby Rachel in his arms like in the illustration above?  I know I can!

DeviantArt: vicorantian

Het Masteen (Ian Anthony Dale)

Ian Anthony Dale; Het Masteen from 'Hyperion Characters' by t0nkatsu
Ian Anthony Dale; Het Masteen from ‘Hyperion Characters’ by t0nkatsu

Simmons describes the Templars of God’s Grove as being extremely tall and thin and having Asian features.  At six feet tall, I’d say Dale is immanently qualified.  If they need additional height for him, there are plenty of camera and CG tricks for that.  Het Masteen is captain of the Yggdrasil, one of only four treeships (which are made from actual gigantic trees!) in the Hyperion universe.  He is quiet, stoical and mysterious, and he’s the only one of the seven pilgrims who doesn’t get to tell his story in the novel; for spoilery reasons I will not go into the reason why here.  Anyway, Dale has done a few films, but he is mostly a well-established presence on television.

Paul Duré (Jeff Bridges)

Jeff Bridges; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from ‘Hyperion’ by Kwenos
Jeff Bridges; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from ‘Hyperion’ by Kwenos

Father Paul Duré is not a Shrike pilgrim, but he is the subject of Lenar Hoyt’s tale and a fascinating character.  At the time Paul Duré is on Hyperion, he is a representative of a Catholic Church which is almost extinct, but he will play an important part in its eventual resurrection (almost literally) thanks to his discovery of the cruciform, a cross-shaped parasite that integrates with its host’s body and brings them back to life whenever they are killed, though every time they come back they are a little less human than before.  And that’s not the cruciform’s only downside.  Duré, who is essentially an exile on Hyperion, is a fairly tormented fellow to start with, but things only get worse for him.  Much worse, in fact.  In the second book, Simmons describes Duré as an older man who is tall and thin but who conveys power.  I’ll be damned if that doesn’t describe Bridges.  Well okay, maybe he’s not so thin anymore, but if he was offered the right role . . .

Meina Gladstone (Sigourney Weaver)

Sigourney Weaver
Sigourney Weaver; ‘Meina Gladstone’ by Marcocartoon

Meina Gladstone is CEO of the Hegemony, making her the most politically powerful person in the Hyperion universe.  Although she doesn’t play as large a part in the first book as she does in later ones, it would be essential to cast the right actress early on.  Gladstone is described as an attractive older woman with short-cropped gray hair.  Because of the hair, one may be tempted to go with, say, Jamie Lee Curtis or Judi Dench for this role, but I had someone else in mind while reading the book.  Gladstone is a shrewd, tough-as-nails politician.  Weaver has practically built her career on playing shrewd and tough-as-nails women like Dian Fossey from Gorillas in the Mist, Dr. Augustine from Avatar and, of course, Ellen Ripley from the Aliens franchise.  Maybe it’s a bit of typecasting on my part, but I can’t help it: in my imagination Meina Gladstone has the face and voice of Sigourney Weaver.

Moneta (Unknown)

hyp-moneta2
‘Moneta’ by Marcocartoon

Moneta is the mysterious woman who appears to Kassad while he is engaged in virtual combat practice and becomes his lover within that virtual domain.  She is a woman of aggressive passion and sensuality.  Okay, there’s no one in that picture, I know.  Originally I did have someone here–Emilia Clarke–but there’s a very important reason why it can’t be her (or really anyone) that isn’t revealed until the second novel, The Fall of Hyperion.  So basically, my idea is that, if the film is to stay true to the books, they pretty much have to avoid showing Moneta’s face at all.

Johnny Keats (Daniel Radcliffe)

Daniel Radcliffe; 'John Keats' by William Hilton
Daniel Radcliffe; ‘John Keats’ by William Hilton

Daniel Radcliffe may seem like an odd choice to play Romantic poet John Keats (or rather an AI-created facsimile of him called a cybrid), but hear me out.  First off, Keats was English, and so is Radcliffe.  That’s a small thing, I know, but consider that the real Keats was a really short man: exactly five feet in height.  Now, Radcliffe isn’t that short, but at only 5’6″ he is one of the shorter actors working right now.  And have you seen him in Horns?  If you haven’t, you should watch it immediately.  Seriously, go watch it right now, it’s a great film.  The rest of this article isn’t going anywhere.

Wikipedia: William Hilton

Rachel Weintraub [age 26] (Natalie Portman)

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman

The daughter of Sol Weintraub is an important character in Hyperion, even though she appears mostly as an infant.  It is because of her that Sol ultimately becomes one of the Shrike pilgrims.  She is a young archeologist studying the Time Tombs when she is struck by the bizarre illness that causes her to begin aging backwards, and Sol and his wife are stuck with the heartbreaking task of watching their only child regress through her youth and childhood years, unable to remember what happened the day before every time she wakes from sleep.  Although Rachel’s face was initially pretty vague in my mind, I later came to see her as a bright and attractive young lady of Jewish heritage with dark hair and dark eyes: in other words, someone exactly like Natalie Portman.

Rachel Weintraub [teen] (Mackenzie Foy)

Mackenzie Foy
Mackenzie Foy

When casting a younger version of a character, I would try my best to get someone who is not only talented but also looks like the older version of the same character.  I know people can change a lot once they go through puberty, but few things irk me more than seeing a film or TV show where a child or teen version of an adult character clearly looks nothing like their older self.  It takes me right out of the story.  Which reminds me: hey casting directors, you really need to do a better job of casting older and younger versions of characters, and even characters who are blood-related.  Anyway, Mackenzie Foy.  Most people probably know her best as little Renesmee from Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2, but we won’t talk about that.  Besides, nothing that was bad about that film was Foy’s fault.  And, with the help of some colored contact lenses, she could certainly pass for a younger version of Natalie Portman.

Melio Arundez (Diego Boneta)

Diego Boneta
Diego Boneta

Melio Arundez is Rachel Weintraub’s co-worker and eventual lover.  I have never had a particularly clear image of him in my head save that he is handsome and has a short, well-trimmed beard.  I chose Diego Boneta mainly for his outstanding performance in the musical Rock of Ages.  It’s not a particularly good film, but it has a certain over-the-top spirit and joyfulness which makes it fun to watch anyway, and it has an incredible cast, including this young man who plays one of the leads.

Merin Aspic (Jack Quaid)

Jack Quaid
Jack Quaid

One thing I considered when thinking about who could play Merin Aspic, the Consul’s grandfather (whose story is told to the other Shrike pilgrims by the Consul) is, what kind of guy would a wide-eyed native girl from an out-of-the-way, sparsely populated tropical world fall for?  The answer: probably a guy like Jack Quaid.  He has that broad, open face that seems to project qualities like honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness.  Plus, being the offspring of Dennis Quaid, he has more than a touch of that same goofy charm that his dad made famous in films like Great Balls of Fire!, Postcards from the Edge and Everybody’s All-American.

Siri [young] (Saoirse Ronan)

Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan

For Siri, the native girl from the planet Maui-Covenant who falls for FORCE:space recruit Merin Aspic, I can think of few actresses who could sell that part like Saoirse Ronan.  She is absolutely one of my favorite young actresses working right now, and I can only foresee great things  ahead for her.  Hanna is now one of my favorite films, and that is based in part on the strength of her performance.  Before that she was utterly fantastic as 13-year-old Briony in the film Atonement, and as Lina Mayfleet in City of Ember.

Siri [middle age] (Helen Hunt)

Helen Hunt
Helen Hunt

An interesting aspect of the Consul’s grandparents’ story is watching them become estranged due to the effects of time dilation.  When Merin and Siri meet, he is 19 and she is 16–he is a full three years older than her and a little wiser.  But while Merin is off in space for mere months, every time he returns to Maui-Covenant Siri has aged years, and her frustration with his naivety becomes more and more palpable.  Again, I tried to come up with someone who could believably pass for an older version of Saoirse Ronan as well as someone who could convey the complex emotions the older Siri experiences in the conflict between her love for Merin and her hatred of what he stands for.  For my money, Helen Hunt is pretty much the perfect choice.

Siri [old] (Vanessa Redgrave)

Vanessa Redgrave
Vanessa Redgrave

Two words: Vanessa. Redgrave.  That is all.

Sad King Billy (John C. Reilly)

John C. Reilly
John C. Reilly

Sad King Billy is a strange character.  He is part of Martin Silenus’s story, and as a man who holds himself partly responsible for the slaughter of an entire city at the hands of the Shrike, he is a haunted and pathetic figure.  Reilly is a versatile actor who has played a variety of different roles, many of which he has been nominated for, but to my knowledge he has never won any of these awards.  That’s a damned shame.  But Sad King Billy is exactly the kind of supporting role that, in the right hands, could be transcendent, even Oscar-worthy.

Dan Simmons’ ‘Hyperion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-hyperionThis is the first book in a science fiction tetralogy called The Hyperion Cantos by the versatile and consistently readable Dan Simmons.  I won’t even try to beat around the bush here to pad out this review: The Hyperion Cantos is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi series, so I recognize that there is simply no way I can be impartial about this.  But I’ll do my best.

As the first book in a series, it is hard to imagine a better example than this one.  Simmons took a fascinating premise–a story of several travelers on a pilgrimage to meet a powerful and mysterious monster–and created a work of timeless beauty and originality that stands as a testament to what the sci-fi genre, in the hands of a true master, can be.  The characters are memorable, the story is epic and the pacing is pitch perfect.  If you are a fan of science fiction at all and space opera specifically, you simply must read this novel.  I guarantee you won’t regret it.

The  novel follows seven pilgrims in the distant future who are, each for their own reasons, on a quest to meet the murderous creature called the Shrike, a being who has come to be worshiped as a god by many in this universe and who can seemingly control time.  It is an homage of sorts to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, as, during their voyage, each of the pilgrims tells their own story on why they are going to see the Shrike (knowing full well the whole time that the Shrike will almost certainly murder them).  And as each of their stories is laid out, we slowly begin to see the big picture unfold before us and realize that the stakes here are much, much higher than the lives of these seven individuals.

There is Father Lenar Hoyt, a drug-addicted priest from the nearly extinct Catholic religion, whose missionary predecessor may just have discovered the key to eternal life, or something close to it.  There is Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, a brilliant soldier of the galactic military group FORCE, whose love for a mysterious woman could change the entire course of human history.  There is Martin Silenus, a decadent poet whose epic poem the Hyperion Cantos is intimately tied up with the Shrike’s existence.  There is Het Masteen, a member of a religious order devoted to nature, whose spaceship is carved from a single gigantic tree.  There is Professor Sol Weintraub, a Jewish scholar whose daughter had an accident at the very destination the pilgrims are traveling to which causes her to age backwards.  There is Brawne Lamia, a female private detective hired to solve a mystery that the most powerful AIs in the known universe want to keep buried.  And there is the Consul, a man who holds the secrets of the Ousters, the biggest military threat to the Hegemony of Man.

Of course, none of that is likely to mean much to you until you actually read the story.  And read it you should, as well as the rest of the series.  But we’ll get to those in time.  Right now it is enough to say that this should be required reading for sci-fi fans, particularly those who are less interested in the mechanics of gee whiz futuristic technology than in the development of human civilization and the evolution of humanity across hundreds of diverse worlds.  Simmons deftly explores the nature of religions, whether ancient or new, and how both humans and intelligent machines deal with the question of God in a civilization no longer bound by the old rules or the old geography.  He also addresses the inevitable conflict between those factions of society who seek to hold on to the old ways and those who are interested in forcing technological progress no matter the cost.  In fact, I would say if there is an overriding theme in this book (and the series as a whole), it is the true price of abiding ignorance.  There are no obvious heroes or villains here, merely humans dealing with their lives as best they can.  Even the horrific Shrike–and he is horrific–may be an agent of the greater good in the end, for all that is known about him.

Hyperion was first published in 1990 (winning both the Hugo and the Locus Award that year); it’s hard to believe this novel is a quarter of a century old at this point.  Like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, this is book that only seems to become more relevant with age and, like the Shrike, ultimately may be timeless.  If you’ve never read anything by Dan Simmons, this is a great place to start.  It will stick with you long after you have closed the back cover and set it aside.  Simmons knows how to write characters that resonate with purpose, intensity and humanity.  He also understands what makes great sci-fi great: that it’s not just about bad-ass spaceships (though there are plenty of those here) or exotic alien worlds (ditto).  It’s about asking the tough questions concerning human destiny.  Where will we wind up in the future, and why?  Are we, like the old adage says, really doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes again and again?  Can we learn to get along despite all our differences?  Maybe, but can we do it before we destroy ourselves?  For Simmons, the answer is both troubling and hopeful.

Grade: A+

Two Month Hiatus…Done

So, as of today I haven’t posted anything here for exactly two months.  The reason is, I got pretty burned out on blogging for awhile and needed a rest from it.  But now I’m back and ready to get back on it.  Coming up: a review of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, another taste of my novel in progress AL+ER, and perhaps even a short story that tells the origin of a well-known villain from a famous children’s book that I wrote largely over the hiatus.  And, of course, artwork and other stuff I happen to like that I’ve discovered in my travels across the web.  Glad to be back, guys!

Facing a Hard Truth

Well, folks, it’s been over a month since I last posted anything, and so I need to remedy that now . . . and apologize.  The thing is, I had planned to have the early draft of AL+ER finished by now, but I am nowhere near ready.  I dropped off somewhere around the two-thirds mark when I ran into a wall.  This happens with writing sometimes.  What I couldn’t understand initially was that there was a reason I was preventing myself from finishing the book, and that reason is, it wasn’t the story I really wanted to write.  It started off strong, but as soon as my protagonists got to the little Southern town of Milton’s Eye, everything went to crap.  This is the part of the story where the horror elements were supposed to kick in, but I quickly got bogged down in cliches and skewed motivations, and worst of all, I just wasn’t being true to myself.  This was not the book I wanted to write.

And so, I ran out of steam sometime in November, moving on to working temporarily on another novel, The Sinister Hand (which is exactly what it needs to be so far, though I’m not sure I am ready to spring it on the world yet).  Anyway, I finally realized last night that this story just wasn’t going to work.  And so, I am officially changing gears here, backtracking to the point where I think the story goes off the rails.  A couple of the early chapters are (mostly) salvageable, so it’s not a total loss.  Even so, I am not happy about it.  You want to know what I’m feeling the most about this?  The answer is, pissed.  I’m pissed that I spent months working on something that ultimately failed.  I imagine there are inventors who feel this way after toiling away in their garages for months on some contraption, only to find that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, and what are writers if not inventors of the intellect?  And so, it is with heavy heart that I bury this version of AL+ER and move on.

That said, I’m excited about the new direction, because it is the story I really want to tell.  It’s a love story . . . of sorts.  Will there be horror in it?  Almost certainly.  Will there be dark fantasy?  Absolutely.  Will it work?  Let’s hope so, because I don’t want to go through this again.  It’s a bit like a terrible breakup, I think: I just gave this story months–actually years, if you get down to it, from the point of conception to now–of my life, only to see it betray me in the end.  Gaaaahhhhh!

Well, back to the drawing board, as the old saying goes . . .

Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ – A Review

IX-cronin-the-passageLet me say up front that I tend to dislike horror stories where the antagonists are just masses of soulless interchangeable monsters: zombies, giant ants, swarms of mutated bees, you get the idea.  There are exceptions to this rule, but they are exceedingly rare.  James Cameron’s Aliens is a grand example of how such monsters can be interesting in their own right. The xenomorphs were well-designed and unique enough to be memorable, and anyway the film was built on the legacy of a single xenomorph from the earlier Alien film.  I also generally dislike stories where the monster is just some variant of a conventional monster that’s been explored a million times . . . like vampires.  Well, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the first book in an eponymous trilogy, ticks off all of those boxes, so I was skeptical about reading it, but the hype claimed it was very different from all of those others, and to a point it is, though perhaps not to the extent that it could’ve been.

When reviewing a book, I generally start with its overriding flaws first, and so I shall.  The biggest problem with The Passage is that the vampires are not that memorable either as a species or as individuals, which is somewhat mitigated by their status as a hive mind, because even a hive-mind can have a personality or voice, and this one does, but that only works if that personality is a compelling one, and unfortunately, the motivating force behind the smokes (as the main group of protagonists in the book call them) isn’t that interesting.  The concept of vampirism being more pathological than supernatural is interesting in itself, of course.  Though not a new idea, Cronin does give us a fairly fresh take on it by adding the hive-mind twist, and by putting them in a post-apocalyptic setting (even if they caused the apocalypse in the first place).

But the thing is, the best monsters–whether individuals or hive-minds–have something that makes them fascinating, some fundamentally human trait or motivation that raises them above a mere force of nature.  My general rule-of-thumb for monsters is, if I can’t relate to them on any level, then they aren’t good villains, and they probably aren’t even particularly good monsters.  When a monster is completely void of humanity, then they are little more than allegory, an idea, and not a real character.  That can work if it is an underlying theme of the story, but here it isn’t.  Hell, Jaws had more personality than these guys!  Which leads to another problem: the original twelve human experiments that become the leaders of their own vampire tribes were all criminals of one sort or another, most of them murderers and violent sex offenders spared from execution by participating in the government program that ultimately turns them into the Twelve (this is established early in the book, so I’m not giving much away here).  So the message seems to be that sex offenders are basically just like vampires whose craving for blood overrides every other motivation and is essentially unquenchable.  I don’t know how familiar Cronin is with criminal psychology, and I’m not exactly a fan of sex offenders either, but this notion is fundamentally ignorant and borders on being childish.  Of course, the book never makes this connection outright, but the idea is there, buried in the subtext.  It’s hardly surprising, of course, but I do expect better from a writer of Cronin’s caliber.  Still, because it is subtextual and not dwelt on too much, it’s a fairly forgivable error.

What is unforgivable though is Amy, a key character who is the very embodiment of the magical-child-as-MacGuffin that ruins so many good stories of this nature.  She starts out as a normal six-year-old girl, and I have to say, she has more heart and personality at this stage (which is a fairly brief period in terms of the book’s narrative) than she does as the nearly century old demi-mortal she becomes later.  Now, I do not have an issue with the magic child trope itself, but they should still have identities and personalities of their own and not just be single-minded (read: simple-minded) MacGuffins who need a ragtag group of bad-ass adults to transport them across dangerous terrain so that they can fulfill their destiny or whatever.  I think I speak for many when I say, it’s time for this trope to die a painful and miserable death.  Kids are people too, dammit!  They deserve better than this.  Granted, Amy is a quasi-child really and not a proper young girl, being as she is ninety-six, but in a way that makes it worse.  What’s next, Cronin?  Are you going to magically age her to complete adulthood when her youthful nature and appearance are no longer convenient?*

Now let’s focus on the positives, shall we?  The #1 selling point of The Passage is that Cronin is sure-footed and confident as both a writer and a storyteller.  Aside from Amy and the virals, his characters are compelling and well-drawn, and the settings are easy to picture (which is why the book will translate well to film).  Peter, Alicia, Circuit and the rest are really the focus of the book anyway.  The science fiction aspects of the novel are strong, and luckily Cronin leans heavily on them. He’s less adept at handling the supernatural side of things, and there is a touch of that here, but luckily not much.  Sci-fi horror is a tricky business, I’ll admit, and to his credit, I think he is aware of the book’s flaws and for the most part does an outstanding job of diverting attention from them: Look away, nothing to see here folks.  Now if you really want to see something, step this way . . . 

Consequently, I’m willing to overlook a lot here.  If not for the author’s skill, the book could easily have become just another ‘special child travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny’ story, but instead we get an entertaining and insightful examination of the internal politics and changing roles of the last handful of survivors of the collapse of human civilization . . . within a story about a special child who travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny.  All in all, I think the book is somewhat overhyped, and possibly misclassified.  As a horror novel, aside from a strong start, it fails.  Despite having a metric crap-ton of vampires (who are bioluminescent, incidentally, a cute joke at the expense of some certain other sparkly vampires), it’s just not very scary.  But as an epic post-apocalyptic adventure tale, it really hits its stride.  We’re invested in the main characters and we want them to succeed.  As the first book in a planned trilogy, it also plots out pretty well, tying up the Babcock storyline but promising much more to come.  At over 760 pages it’s a long book, and there is perhaps some extraneous stuff in the middle, where we are getting to know the members and structure of the First Colony.  Nevertheless, it is a fairly gripping look at a micro-society organized around surviving and fighting off a menacing new species.  The ideas here are nothing new, but they have been sufficiently tweaked to feel new, and if you like this kind of story, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Grade: B 

* Yes, I’m aware of what happens in the second book, thanks for asking.