Tag Archives: science fiction

‘The Book of Strange New Things’ – A Review

IX-michel-faber-the-book-of-strange-new-thingsTruth be told, I’ve actually read several books in between my last review and this one, but somehow a review just never gelled for those other books. First, there was Charles Grant’s Symphony, the first in a tetralogy in which one book each is dedicated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While I have a weird little anecdote about this novel’s cover design in relation to a dream I had in high school (several years before the book was published), I’ll spare you that and just say that the first volume in the series was a massive letdown, and I likely won’t be reading the rest of them. I have a general rule against reviewing anything that I would rate less than a C- because I hate being mean to writers, knowing as I do exactly how hard it is to write a novel—any novel—much less a good one. And let’s say this book just missed the mark of being review-worthy.

Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s colossal ode to Africa The Poisonwood Bible, about the mostly all-female Price clan, headed by the firebrand Southern preacher Nathan Price, and their adventures as missionaries in the Belgian Congo against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. Here I had the opposite problem: the book was certainly worthy of a review, but I felt that any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at it would require someone with a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of African history and culture than I happen to possess. Next I tackled the Seventh Annual Edition of Gardner Dozois’ highly regarded anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The failure here for me was in the prodigious diversity of ideas which threatened to overwhelm me (a common issue I have with good science fiction anthologies), and I will need to read it again to properly review it. Finally, I worked William Styron’s short but exemplary meditation on his own clinical depression, Darkness Visible, into my reading schedule, a text that feels holy to those of us who have suffered from the same affliction at some point in our lives, and therefore to review it was, for me, something akin to sacrilege.

Little did I know, reading all of these books was essentially laying the groundwork for reviewing a novel more in my critical wheelhouse: The Book of Strange New Things by Dutch/British author Michel Faber, a book that shares some territory with Mary Doria Russell’s multi-award-winning The Sparrow, in that both are about an idealistic Christian missionary traveling to an alien world to bring the Gospel to the natives, only to face a series of unexpected challenges upon arrival. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Sparrow‘s central protagonist is a conservative Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, that of The Book of Strange New Things is a liberal Protestant minister from Britain. And whereas Russell’s novel tackles the politics of sex and the emotional impact of rape, Faber’s is at heart a love story. And now I promise to stop with the comparisons and just focus on the volume credited in the headline.

From the outset Faber takes pains to establish the depth and vigor of the relationship between Peter and Beatrice Leigh, which is a good thing because he wastes little time in getting the pastor off to the planet Oasis, where USIC (the acronym is never explained, adding to the mega-corp’s highly mysterious nature throughout the story) has established a . . . colony? Base? Neither of these feel quite accurate in describing the setup USIC has created on the planet, where a handful of handpicked humans toil away in the hardscrabble environment of a world that is, impossibly, both wet and dry at the same time, incredibly humid and yet almost desert-like in its sparsity of life and geological features. A world where the nigh incessant rain comes down in rhythmic spirals. The one intelligent species here are humanoid in form, but their faces are maddeningly unfamiliar, devoid of anything even remotely face-like.

When Peter arrives, he finds several facets of this new place both unsettling and fascinating. For one thing, the USIC habitat is engineered to keep its workers satisfied and incurious about everything outside of their jobs, including what’s going on back on Earth. Or rather, especially what’s going on back on Earth. This is problematic for Peter, who initially tries to keep his promise to communicate regularly with Bea via the Shoot (basically an interplanetary email device that allows for near instantaneous communication between Earth and Oasis) but soon his work with the all too amenable Oasans—which includes mastering their bizarre, nearly impervious form of speech and helping them build a proper church in their otherwise insular and conformist community—causes him to slack off on his transmissions. Naturally, being millions of miles away both physically and mentally, Peter begins to grow apart from his wife, who is dealing with some major issues of her own back home, where civilization has fallen into complete chaos as environmental disasters caused by severe climate change have begun to take their toll. But these problems become almost abstract to Peter as he endeavors to understand what motivates the Oasans, not to mention what happened to his predecessor, the original pastor who inspired the natives to take up Christianity so passionately, and who went missing before Peter’s arrival.

Even as Peter and Bea grow apart, Peter finds himself growing closer to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, who is battling depression and guilt and wants to go home to visit her estranged father. Soon he develops feelings for her that further threaten his marriage, while on the tumultuous Earth, Bea has seemingly lost her faith in God. Will Peter and Bea’s love survive these setbacks? Could any marriage endure these immense psychic and spatial distances, or these ever-multiplying forms and levels of alienation? This is the central question the book asks, and it is largely left to the reader whether the question is satisfactorily answered or not. Meanwhile, there is a pastoral quality to The Book of Strange New Things, an ease and lightness in its unfolding which expertly belies the gloom gathering just off the horizon. Like the Oasans’ ovoid-bricked homes and the sterile USIC compound, the story itself is meticulously constructed to be nonthreatening, or rather to appear so. But danger lurks in unexpected places, like those challenges to love and faith that often strike us obliquely, out of the blue.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is its restraint. Faber could easily have taken this in a dozen more jarring, gruesome or sensational directions. He could have made it far more confrontational to the those who put their faith in God—or science for that matter—to save us from ourselves. Instead, what he gives us is a soft sell of the very things he seems to castigate, sort of an anti-satire, a thing that comes across ultimately as fresh and original even as it polishes its familiar tropes to a glittering shine, and that is borderline miraculous. He even leaves off in a way that invites a sequel, but if one never materializes the novel will remain nothing less than a holistic and accomplished piece, a fully realized work of science fiction that should be read widely.

Grade: A


My Dream Cast – ‘Endymion’ & ‘The Rise of Endymion’

Well, I did one of these things for Hyperion, the first book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, back in May. I haven’t done much on this blog as of late, but this has been brewing for a while. I’m going to bypass The Fall of Hyperion, the second book in the series, as it would basically have exactly the same cast as the first film, only slightly older. I suppose I could’ve included the second book with the first one, the way I’m doing with the third and fourth books here, but I didn’t, so . . .


Raul Endymion (Zachary Quinto)

Zachary Quinto; 'Raul Endymion' by saltytowel
Zachary Quinto; ‘Raul Endymion’ by saltytowel

So basically, Raul Endymion is your standard old-fashioned, two-fisted, smartass action hero–a little bit Han Solo, a little bit Snake Plissken. Quinto may seem like an odd choice for this role, but with his Italian and Irish heritage, you know he’s got some tough guy in him to spare. Raul is not just some brawler either; he’s smart, resourceful, quick on his feet. Can Quinto pull that off? You bet! This guy is Spock in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise after all. Sure, Quinto hasn’t really had a chance to show off his action chops quite yet, so this would be the perfect vehicle for him to do that. And besides, just look at that big hunk of man-meat. Holy Mother of God, he was born for this role.

DeviantArt: saltytowel

Aenea [age 12] (Kylie Rogers)

Kylie Rogers; 'Aenea' by John Picacio
Kylie Rogers; Aenea as portrayed by John Picacio

When we first meet Aenea in Endymion, she’s a feisty, sensitive, precocious 12-year-old girl. It’s a role that would require a child actress with some depth and real talent, and I think Ms. Rogers has what it takes. She really impressed me last spring as Minx Lawrence in the first season of The Whispers, particularly the season finale episode. I would love to see more of her work, and I think she’d be a knockout as young Aenea. Of course, as with any role for a child, she is bound to outgrow it soon, so in a year or two my answer is subject to change.

John Picacio

A. Bettik (Chris Hemsworth)

Chris Hemsworth; Blue Man Group photo
Chris Hemsworth; Blue Man Group photo

Some fans might balk at having Chris Hemsworth shave off his lovely golden locks and paint himself blue, but not me. I would love to see the MCU’s Thor take on the role of A. Bettik, Raul and Aenea’s faithful android companion. A. Bettik is super-strong, super-loyal and built to last, so basically he’s a balder, bluer Thor, right? Okay, not really, but I still think Hemsworth would be fantastic in the role.

Father-Captain Federico de Soya (Javier Bardem)

Javier Bardem; De Soya from 'Endymion Characters' by saltytowel
Javier Bardem; De Soya from ‘Endymion Characters’ by saltytowel

As the primary antagonist and one of the most complex characters in Endymion, Father-Captain Federico de Soya needs to be portrayed by someone with the ability to project all kinds of emotional complexity, a villain that one both fears and respects. As such, I can hardly think of a better person for the role than Javier Bardem, who was absolutely chilling as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, for which he won several awards, including an Oscar. Like Chiguhr, de Soya is unceasing in his pursuit, seemingly unflappable and incredibly thorough. But unlike Chigurh, he is a man of conscience, which ultimately changes the course of his destiny. Added bonus: Bardem is from Spain, and de Soya is of Spanish descent, hailing from a backwater desert planet called Madrededios. So the accent would totally work with this character!

Cardinal Lourdusamy (Simon Fisher-Becker)

Simon Fisher-Becker
Simon Fisher-Becker

Cardinal Simon Augustino Lourdusamy is a very powerful man in the Catholic church of Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, second only to Pope Julius IV (later Urban XVI) in official rank. He’s a shrewd and conniving fellow who plots to replace the reigning pope, and Simmons describes him a very, very large man. Initially I pictured James Earl Jones in the role, but I don’t think Jones has nearly enough bulk. John Goodman was my second choice, but I already cast him as Baron Harkonnen in my Dune film, and I don’t want to always rely on Goodman to play an overweight villain. Thus, I arrived at Fisher-Becker, who is best known for portraying another blue-skinned bald man (sci-fi is full of them), Dorium Maldovar in Doctor Who, as well as the Fat Friar in the first Harry Potter film.

Pope Julius IV / Urban XVI (David Tennant)

David Tennant; 'Urban XVI' by Pavel Postovoit
David Tennant; ‘Urban XVI’ by Pavel Postovoit

And speaking of Doctor Who alumni, we already established back in the Hyperion dream cast post that the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, would be ideal for Father Hoyt, the weaselly priest who went on the Shrike Pilgrimage with the others in the first book. Since Hoyt eventually becomes the pope in this universe, we have to stick to our guns here. But seriously, who wouldn’t want to see David Tennant play an evil, half-mad pope? I mean, come on, that would be amazing.

Sergeant Gregorius (Terry Crews)

Terry Crews; "Hyperion Cantos - Soldier" by NamelessPL
Terry Crews; “Hyperion Cantos – Soldier” by NamelessPL

There are three elite soldiers who accompany Father-Captain de Soya in his pursuit of Aenea and friends across the galaxy, and arguably the most badass of them is Sgt. Gregorius, who originates from a warrior culture where everyone starts out with seven “weakness names” and one “strength name” and only survivors of a series of seven deadly trials get to slowly strip away their weakness names. Only after they’ve survived all the trials are they left a single name: their strength name. Yeah. So, Gregorius (and that’s it, folks) not only made it through all of that, he moved up the ranks of the Pax to become a sergeant in the Swiss Guard, the crème de la crème of an already elite class of warriors. So who do you get to play such a massively awesome specimen of humanity? Why, none other than Terry Crews, of course! Who else?

Corporal Bassin Kee & Lancer Rettig (Steven Yeun & Kiowa Gordon)

Steven Yeun; Kiowa Gordon
Steven Yeun; Kiowa Gordon

I’m giving you a two-fer here. In addition to Sergeant Gregorius, two other highly trained soldiers, both of them members of the Swiss Guard, accompany Father-Captain de Soya as he flies across the galaxy trying to catch up with Aenea. They are Corporal Bassin Kee and Lancer Rettig. Kee is described as a small man of Asian descent, while Rettig is, if I recall correctly, a taller man of Native American origin (though the surname is actually Germanic, as it turns out–yes, I looked it up). My choices are Steven Yeun, who is of course familiar to all of Nerddom as Glenn from The Walking Dead, and as it so happens, his schedule has recently become clear. (Thanks for killing him off, TWD!) Gordon is probably most recognizable as one of the werewolves in The Twilight Saga films, though for my money, he did his best work in the more grounded thriller An Act of War.

Rhadamanth Nemes (Deepika Padukone)

Deepika Padukone; "Rhadamanth Nemes"
Deepika Padukone; “Rhadamanth Nemes”

So, as badass as Francisco de Soya and his crew are, the real threat to Aenea is this TechnoCore-created monster in the guise of an Indian woman. She’s basically the Terminator, only she can stop and start time at will. She even temporarily put the Shrike out of commission! Yeah. To portray her, we can’t just have any ol’ Indian actress. No, we need Deepika Padukone, who is a Bollywood phenomenon in her own country. Although mostly known for comedies and romantic films, I have no doubt Padukone could not only pull off this role as the TechnoCore’s deadliest creation, she could be epic.

Father Glaucus (Michael Caine)

Michael Caine
Michael Caine

Father Glaucus is a blind, independent priest who Aenea, Raul and A. Bettik encounter on the frozen world of Sol Draconi Septem (which is one of the most harrowing parts of the book, incidentally). He resisted accepting the cruciform and as a result of this heresy and his admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, he is exiled to the inhospitable, high-gravity, ice-covered hell that is Sol Draconi Septem. It proves to be an important meeting for Aenea, as she learns about de Chardin’s teachings, and her own philosophy ultimately grows out of these teachings. I would love to see Sir Michael Caine, who was absolutely amazing as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, take on the part of this stubborn but kindly old priest.

Consul’s Ship (Jim Parsons)

Jim Parsons; "Retro Rocketship" by MDK Graphics
Jim Parsons; “Retro Rocketship” by MDK Graphics

It’s a sleek spaceship designed to look like the classic rocketships of ’50s and ’60s cinema and pulp magazine covers, it’s expensive as hell, and by the time of Endymion, there are no others like it in existence. It’s the Consul’s  ship, which Raul and co. use to escape the Pax. It also has a unique semi-sentient AI (since the Catholic church has officially banned all true AIs from Pax space) running its on-board computers and regulating the ship. Although the ship doesn’t make the whole journey through the book, part of its AI does in the form of a com bracelet worn by Raul. Simmons describes the male voice of the computer as pleasant but a little prissy, and I couldn’t help imagining Sheldon Cooper as the AI’s voice, which would no doubt please Sheldon immensely. So naturally, Jim Parsons has to be the voice of the ship in any film version I okay.

MDK Graphics

The Rise of Endymion

Aenea [age 16] (Elle Fanning)

Elle Fanning
Elle Fanning

Who do you get to play the preternaturally intelligent, charismatic and super-talented teenage girl we encounter in the early part of The Rise of Endymion? I can think of no better choice than Miss Elle Fanning, who has blown me away as a child actress in such roles as Phoebe Lichten in Phoebe in Wonderland, Alice Dainard in Super 8, and Winnie Portley-Rind in The Boxtrolls. Though she is only in the book briefly, the 16-year-old Aenea is tormented as she struggles with the first pangs of love and the agony of sending Raul away on what for her (thanks to time dilation) will be a years-long mission to retrieve the ship from the primitive world they left it on. You need a top-caliber teen actress to pull this off, and Elle fits the bill. Besides, she has a long history of playing the younger version of characters her sister plays. I think you can see where this is going . . .

Aenea [age 21] (Dakota Fanning)

Dakota Fanning;
Dakota Fanning; “The Rise of Endymion” by John Picacio

I’m not even going to try to be impartial here. Dakota has been one of my favorite young actresses for forever, having first won my heart in her role as Allie in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi miniseries Taken. There has always been something eerily precocious and poised about Dakota, even when she was a young whippersnapper just starting out. I know I often say that such-and-such an actor was born for a role, but um . . . Dakota was born for this role. Aenea is not simply a genius; she’s something more than human, as her father was a John Keats cybrid who introduced her to the AI Beyond when she was still in her mother’s womb. Dakota has the acting chops for this part in spades, but more than that, she has a gravitas that few young actors, male or female, have at her young age. This will be important, since she has a romantic relationship with the middle-aged Raul, and we don’t want it to seem creepy or exploitative. She has to be convincing as someone wise beyond her years, and since Dakota already has that quality . . .

Cardinal Mustafa (John Turturro)

John Turturro
John Turturro

Cardinal John Domenico Mustafa is the Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Office, and that means he tortures people for  a living. But he also plays a key role in investigating some strange goings-on on the planet Mars, formerly the home base and training ground for FORCE, the Hegemony-era military. He is a cruel and devious man, but not a stupid one. Who can play this part with the nuance it so desperately needs? Why, John Turturro! Let’s just say it up front: over the last decade or so, Turturro has been stuck with a lot of crap roles, which is unfortunate because this is the guy who played Heinz Zabantino in Five Corners, Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink in the film of the same name. He deserves better. I really want to see him channel his inner sadist! Who’s with me?

Kenzo Isozaki (George Takei)

George Takei
George Takei

Chairman Kenzo Isozaki is the CEO of the Pax Mercantilus, the official trade wing of the new Catholic empire. He’s a shrewd man with larger aspirations, but he isn’t nearly as corrupt as those in the Vatican. He will eventually be a key player in filling the void left by the collapse of the Pax, but throughout the last book he mostly gets in over his head with the TechnoCore, in the process revealing the true depth of the  danger humanity faces from the AI collective. I like the idea of having sci-fi veterans performing in major sci-fi films, and as they go, George Takei is one of my faves. It’s okay to be Takei, and it’s better than okay to have him in the Hyperion Cantos!

Lhomo Dondrub (Jackie Chan)

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan

Lhomo Dondrub is not a major character, but the few places where he does show up in the book he’s easily the most awesome person in the room (and that includes when Raul and Aenea are around). Tien Shan is a mountain world where the ground level is covered with a toxic fog and the mountains are steep and ragged, so survival at those high altitudes requires some finesse. Dondrub is a hang glider pilot and all-around acrobat with some mad skills, yo. And who could knock that one out of the park? You know who. There’s no question that the only guy to play Lhomo Dondrub is Jackie Chan. It’s not even a contest.

Dan Simmons’ ‘The Rise of Endymion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-rise-of-endymionAt last we arrive at the final book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.  To be honest, I finished reading The Rise of Endymion in preparation for this review a while ago.  I’ve just been hesitant to review it because . . . well, let’s just say it’s easily the most depressing book in the series.  And yet, it is the most hopeful as well.  That seems like a contradiction, I know, and it is, but there are few writers quite like Simmons when it comes to weaving these contradictions into a story that is somehow satisfying when everything in your gut tells you it shouldn’t be.

The novel begins four years after the events that transpired at the end of Endymion, when Father Captain de Soya turned against his orders to capture the then 12-year-old Aenea and instead saved her and her companions Raul Endymion and the android A. Bettik from certain death at the hands of the Technocore-engineered soldier Radhamanth Nemes, who is a kind of female Terminator, only (like the Shrike) she can stop time.  Basically, she is an unbeatable killing machine, but de Soya managed to stop her, giving Aenea and her friends time to farcast to Old Earth, which had somehow been transported to an entirely different galaxy, assuring their protection from the Core and the Pax both for as long as they wish to remain there.

Now 16 years old, Aenea has begin to fulfill her destiny as the prophet of a new belief system, one that can potentially undo both the Church and the Core.  As prophets go, Aenea is somewhere between Jesus (which Simmons goes out of his way to compare her to in several obvious ways, including a communion process where her disciples literally drink droplets of her blood), Buddha (self-denial, and Aenea eventually winds up on an Asian-dominant world called Tien’ Shan, where even the boy Dalai Lama looks at the young woman as his teacher) and Charles Darwin.  Meanwhile, our hero Raul, who again serves as narrator of the book, is sent off alone on another series of world-hopping adventures in order to retrieve the Consul’s ship, which they abandoned early on in Endymion.  But inevitably they will come together again, and here they will hatch a plan to confront the devil in his own lair.

For the most part Aenea’s reluctant messiah shtick works, though there are a couple of times where it feels like Simmons is beating a dead horse.  There are a few other sour notes in the book, such as the ludicrous degree of evil displayed by the high-ranking members of the Church, including the weak-minded Pope Urban XVI.  There’s even a none too subtle comparison of the Pax to the Nazis early in the story.  But this is space opera, and I tend to give a pass to things like this, because these characters exist on a scale almost unimaginable to us, so they almost have to be larger-than-life and twice as evil, or twice as good as the case may be.  Of course, in demonizing the Catholic Church, Simmons is certainly playing with fire, though he makes it clear that the Church, like every entity that has endured through the ages, will go through phases.  This just happens to be one of Catholicism’s darker periods.

There’s also a lovely sense of the two sets of books, the Hyperion set and the Endymion set, being mirror images of each other.  Not just in the titles but in the way the larger plot unfolds in them.  Both Hyperion and Endymion deal with a lot of traveling in pursuit of vaguely defined goals.  Likewise, if you know what happened at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, you may have some inkling as to what will occur at the end of The Rise of Endymion.  To be sure, it was spelled out pretty clearly throughout the book.  It somehow felt both necessary and gratuitous at the same time, which is far more frustrating than if it had been merely one or the other.  But Dan Simmons is far too clever a writer to give you exactly what you want.  This is a book—and a series—that was meant to be debated.  That we aren’t much debating it is unfortunate, because it has much to offer those interested in the future of religion and philosophy.  Even though it is the weakest book in the series, it is also the most important.  To be fair, very few series end perfectly.  The Lord of the Rings is the only one I can even think of at the moment that did, and even that is debatable.

Moreover, this is yet another love letter (if a bittersweet one) Dan Simmons has penned to literature itself.  Who else but Simmons could concoct a lesson in English and American lit masquerading as an exciting outer space adventure?  Perhaps there have been other examples, but none are quite as memorable as The Hyperion Cantos.  The last book in the series has its own interesting lessons.  I probably learned more about Catholicism and the Vatican from The Rise of Endymion than I have from any other single source.  And, as per usual, Simmons’ fantastic world-building skill is on full display.  But it is the lessons of the One Who Teaches that resonate most profoundly here.  The mystical focus of the book may turn off a lot of hard SF fans, but for me it feels like the flip side of the same coin.  In the end the entire Hyperion Cantos, with its overall plot spanning hundreds of years, its large cast of characters, the different structure of each book and Aenea’s messiah parallel, begins to feel something like that most widely read piece of literature of all: the Bible.  If so, then The Rise of Endymion is obviously its Gospels.

Grade: A 

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+ 

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)

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)

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)

‘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+

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.